Tag Archives: GLoucestershire

Wetting the Baby’s Head

A Review of the BALLAD TALES launch showcase, Fri 9 June, Open House, Stroud

WP_20170609_008

What is the usual format and purpose of a book launch? The author talks a little bit about her latest work, they read a sample extract, maybe answer a few questions, then sits behind a desk to sign purchased copies and exchange a few niceties with the book-buying public and, perhaps if they’re enjoying some success, fans. So far, so banal. The culmination of a couple (or more) years of effort and the collaborative ‘ecosystem’ of writer/s, commissioning editor, copyeditor, designer, illustrator, indexer, etc, is worth celebrating (and valuing – as those who casually ask for freebies should bear in mind).  And yet the book launch should be about more than just merely ‘pushing ink’. Yes, it’s nice to start generating sales, but those who organize such an event with just that in mind are often disappointed. It’s more about wetting the baby’s head – blessing the new endeavour with good vibes – and giving all those involved a collective pat on the back. If this can be made enjoyable to the general public, then they get something out of it as well – otherwise it’s just a mutual ego massage. And the meaning is definitely not the massage! It is about conjuring up some of the ambience of the book, some of the spirit in which it was born – remember that initial flash of inspiration? The excitement as you scribbled down that idea? The adrenalin rush of getting the proposal accepted and seeing it start to come together?

What all that in mind I put together a launch showcase (one of many I’ve done over the years) for Ballad Tales: an anthology of British ballads retold, published by The History Press. On Friday 9th June I gathered with a dozen of my fellow contributors in what used to be called the ‘British School’, Open House’s hall-for-hire, tucked away behind the arts cafe, Star Anise, the very sanctum sanctorum of Stroudiness. My partner and I, Chantelle Smith, started setting up and were soon joined by other willing hands. The secret of these events is to make it a team effort, to ask for volunteers and not to try and carry it all by yourself. One wants to be able to enjoy the evening after all, and it’s hard to do that if running from pillar to post, sweating buckets, and doing an impression of Roadrunner-meets-Inspector Gadget. Clipboarditis is best avoided. Do your bit and trust everyone else is doing theirs. Try to stop and chat to people, exchange a joke, perhaps have a drink or just simply take a few breaths  – relax and enjoy yourself and others will to.

So, the doors were open and folk started to drift in – in typical tardy Stroud style. Fortunately the room started to fill up, and around half an hour in I began the evening with my introduction. This included the usual housekeeping, which, for some reason, folk found amusing. In such situations I open my mouth and it’s like a trapdoor to my subconscious – all kinds of stuff comes out. I had a ‘plan’ of what I wanted to say (mainly the ‘thank yous’ and toast) but it’s good to be spontaneous and add a bit of levity to the proceedings. The serious stuff is in my written introduction to the anthology for those who want to read it (and maybe they’ll just skip to the stories). Anyway, my intro served to warm the crowd up, and then I went into full MC mode, introducing each of the respective acts as they took their turn.

The showcase got off to a powerful start with Candia and Tony McKormack of Inkubus Sukkubus performing their song ‘Corn King’ from their Heartbeat of the Earth album. Their latest (Belas Knapp, Tales of Witchcraft and Wonder volume 2) is out 24 June, continuing their evocative exploration of ‘Gloucestershire horror folk’. I had invited Candia to write the foreword for the collection after listening to their Barrow Wake album last year. Next up we had Horsley-based storyteller, Fiona Eadie, performing an extract from her iconic version of ‘Tam Lin’. Travelling further north, we then had Chantelle Smith read some of ‘The Storm’s Heart’ followed by her version of ‘The Grey Selkie of Sule Skerry’. Then fellow Fire Spring David Metcalfe performed ‘The Three Ravens’ and ‘The Twa Corbies’ back-to-back, which was fascinating, as the latter seemed to be a satire of the former. Nimue Brown (of Hopeless, Maine fame) offered an impressive blend of story, song and exegesis on her ballad choice ‘Scarborough Fair’ and her prose retelling ‘Shirt for a Shroud’. And Kirsty Hartsiotis (Fire Spring spotting – gotta catch ‘em all) finished the first half with flair, with her spirited 20s retelling of ‘The Famous Flower of Serving Men’, ‘There ain’t no sweet man’. She dressed in Flapper style for the occasion.

After the break, Laura Kinnear continued on the style front, in vintage fashion, as she read out her retelling of ‘The Bristol Bridegroom/The Ship’s Carpenters Love to a Merchant’s Daughter’, ‘The Shop Girl and the Carpenter’, which is set wittily in homefront World War Two.  Then we had Karola Renard’s powerful reimagining of ‘Sovay’, ‘A Testament of Love’ (with the ballad sung magnificently by Chantelle); followed by her husband’s version of ‘Barbaran Allen’, ‘The Grand Gateway’ (with Mark on vocal duties for that).  The final story of the evening was from Anthony Nanson (Fire Spring #5!), who performed an oral version of his ‘King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid’, which felt incredibly resonant after that day’s general election results. Indeed each of the stories had impact, felt engaged with the world and the issues that face us (while avoiding any heavy-handed didacticism or proselytizing). As the evening drew to a close I performed a lively duet of ‘The Twa Magicians/The Coal Black Smith’ (one of the two ballads I adapted for the book) with Nimue – the audience spontaneously joining in the chorus. Then I invited Candia and Tony back on stage for one of their powerful pagan anthems to round things off. The evening had been a great success, and I got all the balladeers up on stage for a final photo opportunity – a lovely souvenir of a splendid gathering of talented folk.

One can usually tell if an evening has gone well by the atmosphere in the room afterwards – there was a lovely buzz as folk lingered to chat and make connections. I heard one person say that it was the best book launch they had been too. This confirmed to me that our creative, collective, bardic approach, paid off.

Let the awen flow and good things will result.

BALLAD TALES NEW COVER

The next Ballad Tales event (hosted by David Metcalfe) will be on Monday 19 June – Bath Storytelling Circle, upstairs at The Raven, Bath, from 8pm. All welcome.

http://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/publication/ballad-tales/9780750970556/

Walking with Thomas

The sun used to shine while we two walked
Slowly together, paused and started
Again, and sometimes mused, sometimes talked
As either pleased, and cheerfully parted

                                                                                  The Sun Used to Shine, Edward Thomas

 

WP_20170409_11_09_23_Pro.jpg

Near Dymock, K. Manwaring, 2017

On the 100th anniversary of the death of Edward Thomas, poet, who died at the Battle of Arras, Easter Monday, 9th April 1917, after only two months in France, my friend Anthony Nanson (writer, editor and cousin of  the Edwardian editor and critic Edward Garnett) and I undertook a memorial walk around Dymock, Gloucestershire, where he lived for a brief while with his family at Oldfields, just over the field from his fellow adventurer in verse, Robert Frost.

WP_20170409_10_26_52_Pro.jpg

Setting off on the Poets Path, K. Manwaring 2017

It was a glorious Spring morning when we set off from opposite the Beauchamp Arms (where Frost and Thomas liked to sink a pint or two), the sun was shining as it did upon their famous ‘walks-talking’ (‘The Sun Used to Shine’), the sky was a freshly-scrubbed blue, and the fields were brimming with wild daffodils, daisies, anemones and bluebells.

WP_20170409_11_33_00_Pro

Reading by the Old Nail Shop, A. Nanson, 2017

We walked an indulgent ten hours, from 10am-8pm, at an ambling pace – stopping intermittently to read poems in situ – on a 13.5 mile route that took us around the old stomping ground of the Dymock Poets, as they became known (close to Frost and Thomas lived Wilfrid Gibson and Lascelles Abercrombie, who along with John Drinkwater and Rupert Brooke, formed the loose band of bardic brothers). We followed some of the Poets Paths (2 routes which take in the key sites, although in a poorly-signposted and badly-maintained way), but quickly struck out on our own way, a road less travelled, taking us via the Greenway crossroads, site of the Old Nail Shop (Gibson’s former residence) through Brooms Green and Bromesberrow, before striking out on the ridge up to southern tip of the Malvern Hills and our destination for the day, Ragged Stone Hill, another Dymock ‘hot spot’ (as marked by Gibson’s eponymous poem).

WP_20170409_16_49_06_Pro

The view from Ragged Stone Hill, looking backward towards Dymock, May Hill in the distance, K. Manwaring 2017

It turned out to be a hot day, so we took it easy, finding frequent excuses to stop, stand and stare (as advocated in ‘Leisure’ by WH Davies, a visitor to the Dymocks). Supertramp Davies was not only an epic walker (even with a wooden leg, having lost one while freight-car hopping in America) but also an animal lover (see his poem, ‘The Dumb World’), and he would have enjoyed the many encounters we had today – splendid pedigree horses; a whole colony of pigs, the sows feeding their litters of lively piglets; proud ewes with their sprightly lambs; frisky young bulls (a herd seeking to harangue us from one end of the field to the next until I waved them off). There must have been something in the air, because the livestock seemed to get increasingly frisky towards evening. At one point I had to fend off the challenge of a feisty black bullock with my walking stick.

WP_20170409_17_21_22_Pro

One Man and his Stick, Kevan on Chase End Hill, A. Nanson, 2017

Along the way we talked about many things – the writer’s life, lecturing (we both teach in universities), cabbages and kings and everything under the sun. We read out poems by Thomas and the Dymocks along the way – I choosing mine at random, Anthony selecting his from the contents page. Here’s what we shared:

Early one morning – ET (KM)

The Lane – ET (AN)

The Old Nail Shop – WG (KM)

May 23 – ET (KM)

The Bridge – ET (AN)

The Ragged Stone  – WG (KM)

Iris by Night – RF (KM)

Celandines – ET (AN)

But These Things Also ET (KM)

The Poets: ET – Edward Thomas; RF – Robert Frost; WG – Wilfrid Gibson
Readers: AN – Anthony Nanson; KM – Kevan Manwaring

WP_20170409_13_33_56_Pro

Anthony reads The Bridge, K. Manwaring, 2017

The views from the ridge were magnificent, looking back across the Dymock vale – May Hill in the hazy distance (another favourite jaunt of Frost and Thomas) – the vibrant shades of green upon the trees, the meadows festooned with flowers, every detail picked out by the golden afternoon sun. This part of England, where Gloucestershire meets Herefordshire, is so quintessential it is positively Arcadian (at one point we strolled through a handsome country estate where lambs hopped, skipped and raced about by the shores of a royal blue lake, a pastoral idyll that just needed a shepherdess to complete the picture). To connect the flat fields of Dymock with the dramatic peaks (or rather ‘Marilyns’) of the Malverns was satisfying – a transition that Frost and Thomas would have enjoyed, heading for the hills to get a perspective on their lives, away, for a day’s meandering, from families, bills, deadlines and looming war.

WP_20170409_12_01_02_Pro

Light and shadow co-exist in Thomas’ poetry. K. Manwaring 2017

The flanks of Ragged Stone hill have a Faerie quality to them – alive with Earth energy. Perhaps this is not surprising as it is said to be a nexus of ley-lines, as initially discovered the original ley-hunter, Alfred Watkins (who described his theories in The Old Straight Track). Next to it is the Whiteleaved Oak, said to be the site of one of the Three Perpetual Choirs (as cited in the Welsh Triads), along with Glastonbury and Ely. The harmony of the land was maintained by the choirs there, and to this day the Three Choirs Festival takes place in the area. In a way, perhaps the Dymock Poets, with their songs of verse, were also maintaining the land’s equilibrium. I really do believe that for a brief while they created, with their inspiring creative fellowship, a Little Eden in a quiet corner of England. And whenever kindred spirits gather together to share their stories, songs, verse, laughter and love, it can happen again.

WP_20170409_16_30_41_Pro

A well-earned rest on Ragged Stone Hill, only 4 hours back to the car! K. Manwaring 2017

As the sun set, the trees silhouetted by its evanescent golden after-glow, the ink of shadows oozing from the earth, we made it, foot-weary but happy, to the Beauchamp Arms, were we raised a pint in memory of Edward Thomas.  In Steep and Aldestrop there had been memorial events also on that day, but here in Dymock, Anthony and I, in our modest little way, had perpetuated the choir of the Dymock Poets with our walks-talking, in the spirit of Frost and Thomas.

frost and thomas

Elected Friends, Edward Thomas (left) & Robert Frost.

 

The Road Not Taken

 

Wellow Lane

”Two roads diverged in a wood, And I – I took the one less travelled by…’ Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken, Photograph by Kevan Manwaring 2017

On the anniversary of the death of the poet Edward Thomas on Easter Monday, 9th April 1917, at the Battle of Arras,  I wanted to share a screenplay I co-wrote with a fellow Dymock Poets enthusiast, Terence James back in 2010-2011, ‘Little Edens’ (or The Road Not Taken). It hasn’t been produced, but it has been performed in a script-in-hand read-thru the ‘Spaniel in the Works’ theatre company in Stroud. I share it memory of Edward Thomas and Robert Frost and the special friendship they enjoyed. I am an avid believer in  creative community and in celebrating the ‘little edens’ of the everyday – the golden moments shared with friends, loved ones, animals, nature, and the spirit of place.

‘Little Edens’ – A Writer’s Statement

I want to develop this project because I am a poet and a lover of the British countryside, and this story celebrates both. I am interested in the period (Edwardian-Georgian-Twenties) having set my first novel, The Long Woman, in it (in its celebration of the English landscape and the Lost Generation, my book echoes some of the concerns of the screenplay). I am haunted by the artistic response in times of conflict – how can we ‘justify’ such rarefied activities as writing poetry in the face of conflict? – and I think the story of the Dymock Poets mirrors our own times and predicament, a hundred years on. Against the shadow of war, there is a brief, bright flowering of creativity in a small corner of the Gloucestershire countryside. This would be precious enough in its own right (one of the ‘little Edens’ of the film) but the fact that this convergence of poets and their muses produced some of the most memorable poetry in the English language shows that ‘something special’ occurred. Thomas might not have been able to ‘write a poem to save his life’, as he so poignantly said to his devoted friend, Eleanor Farjeon, but his poems have given him a kind of immortality – through them he lives on.

I am also fascinated by the influential friendship between the two poets, Robert Frost and Edward Thomas. When they first met, in October 1913, the former was yet to establish his literary reputation and the latter had yet to turn to poetry. Through their friendship, they inspired and encouraged each other. Thomas wrote favourable reviews of Frost’s early work, helping to launch his career, and Frost encouraged Thomas to try his hand at poetry, which he did from the end of 1914 – the year the film is set – up until his death in April 1917, in the battle of Arras. During this time he wrote the 150 poems that made his career. Frost returned to America with a burgeoning literary reputation – he went on to become a four-time Pulitzer Prize winning ‘grand old man of American poetry’. This trans-Atlantic friendship is the heart of the film – in microcosm, it mirrors the wider circle of the Dymock Poets and their wives. I find their fellowship heartening, especially in the face of war – and the community they share, the coterie at Dymock, a model for creative living. For a brief while they created and shared something golden.
The Dymock Poets (and the wider clique of the Georgian Poets, to whom they mostly
belonged) have fallen in and out of fashion over the years, but the astonishing convergence of talent (Frost, Thomas and the ‘Adonis’ of the Bloomsbury Set, Rupert Brooke) at such a poignant time deserves to be more widely-known. I picture ‘Little Edens’ as being a deeply beautiful and moving film – with many of the scenes filled with wide shots of lush English landscape; sleepy hamlets; faces a-glow around the hearth; evenings of poetry, cider and fellowship; the embryonic lines of classic poems; the colloquy of poets out on their rambles; contrasting with the harsher scenes of war and its consequences. Imagine elements of ‘Bright Star’; ‘Regeneration’; ‘A Month in the Country’; ‘Hedd Wyn’; and ‘The Edge of Love’.

A logline might be something like: ‘For one brief summer they found paradise — until the world found them.’

Kevan Manwaring Copyright © 27 August 2010

Here it is:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B65FARK-P4_HeXlYSmMwTEtHU0k/view?usp=sharing

Let me know what you think. Film producers and directors especially welcome!

 

 

A New Awen

 

wp_20161201_21_40_46_pro

(From left) Jay Ramsay, Lindsay Clarke and Anthony Nanson, Awen Book Launch, Black Book Café, Stroud, 1 December 2016

 

On the first day of December towards the end of the slow-motion car-crash that is the year 2016, a small group of kindred spirits gathered together to rekindle hope.

The setting was Black Book Cafe, the book-lined refuge from the mainstream, which sits at the top of Stroud high street, cocking a snook to the world. This is a popular venue for spoken word events and mindful convergences – in the past it has hosted Story Suppers and Acoustic Sundays, a Death Cafe and a chess club (which in my mind blur in surreal ways!). Tonight it was the location for a book launch hosted by Awen Publications – the ecobardic small press founded by yours truly in 2003 and now run with aplomb by Anthony Nanson.

The chilly Thursday night saw the culmination of substantial effort behind the scenes by Nanson and Hartsiotis, the husband-and-wife literary powerhouse, situated in the town since relocating from Bath (where once upon a time four storytellers met and formed Fire Springs, now augmented ably by Richard Selby and Chantelle Smith: Awen Assemble!).

Three years ago at the end of November (so almost to the day) I held a tenth anniversary event in the same cafe, where I announced the end of Awen – for me at least, for I was embarking on a Creative Writing PhD and, after a decade at the helm, had found myself burnt out and nearly bankrupt from publishing some thirty titles by authors from across the world. I had given my all and had nothing left to give, so it was time to move on.

After the aftermath of that book-pocalypse had settled, a glimmer of hope emerged in a conversation with Anthony – long-term friend, walking companion and Fire Spring. He was willing to take it on and I couldn’t think of a safer and more competent pair of hands, and so I passed the whole business to him, for what it was worth, sans lock, stock and barrel (it had been running at a loss since its inception). With the spirit of a new broom, he has been busily consolidating the back catalogue and is now starting to publish new work. The first of these is A Dance with Hermes, a themed poetry collection by Lindsay Clarke (my old mentor from Cardiff University). An award-winning novelist, this was something of a departure for Clarke, although he revealed in his introduction that he had started out with hopes of being a poet, until a woman in his first audience observed: ‘You’re a good storyteller, but definitely not a poet.’ Dear Reader, he married her – there followed forty years of marriage and a successful career as a writer of literary fiction with an esoteric flavour. His best known work is the masterful The Chymical Wedding (Picador 1990), although his latest, The Water Theatre (Alma 2012) shows him getting, if anything, even better with age.

dwh-front-coverAnd so it was with a sense of fan-boy excitement I went along, happy to be a punter for once, although the seating meant I didn’t end up lurking at the back as I’d intended – but found myself inadvertently thrust into the limelight as each of the three readers kindly name-checked me.

First up was Anthony to kick things off and after he said some very heart-warming things about my input into the press, he read a poem by the late Mary Palmer, ‘Black Madonna’ (from Tidal Shift, her 2009 collected works which I published shortly after her premature death).

 It was incredibly poignant to have one of Mary’s fine poems start the proceedings – as she had performed at the first launch of Jay Ramsay’s collection, Places of Truth: journeys into sacred wilderness, a showcase I had organised and hosted at Waterstones, Bath in 2008. It felt like full circle in some way, or rather, a spiral, because we had not simply returned to the beginning, but overlapped psychic and physical spaces as we move into the next cycle.

 Anthony then welcomed up Jay, who performed a confident and eloquent set of his poems from Places. These poems inspired and impressed me the first time I read, edited and published them, and they did again. It was like visiting old friends – his Sinai sequence had kept me company while I was in residence at El Gouna, on the other side of the Red Sea in 2010 (prompting my poetic reply, ‘Desert Brother’).

And Jay and Lindsay were similarly sympatico as the ‘Alchemical Brothers’, both having written on the subject in prose fiction (The Chymical Wedding), non-fiction (Alchemy: the art of transformation; The Crucible of Love) and poetry – the latter manifesting most recently in Clarke’s ‘debut’ collection, A Dance with Hermes.

The author decided the best way to introduce the poems was … to read the introduction, and I am so glad he did, because it was like sitting in on one of his lectures – which I remember so fondly from my Masters). A Cambridge-trained, Classicist, this was no mere display of erudition or elitist knowledge, but a download of wisdom. In the Q&A that followed I likened it to an invocation to Hermes, for it really felt Clarke had manifested the god of communication and cunning in the room by the end of the evening, with his ludic and lucid poems, which danced with form and content in delightful and daring ways.

A Dance with Hermes, crafted with care and handsomely published, boldly announces Awen is back in business – with wings on its heels.

I left the bookshop fired up by a reconnection to the profound triple-aspect mystery which had inspired me to start Awen in the first place: fellowship, inspiration, and art.

Kevan Manwaring, 8 December 2016

ecobardicshowcasewaterstones20-030-09

Publisher and MC Kevan Manwaring (far left) with Peter Please, Mary Palmer, Richard Selby, Jay Ramsay, Anthony Nanson, Kirsty Hartsiotis, Helen Moore, Ken Masters, and David Metcalfe at the  original launch of Places of Truth, Waterstones Bath, 2008.

FFI: http://www.awenpublications.co.uk/

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/

 

 

Behind the Mask

Border Morris, a radical tradition

by Kevan Manwaring

 

STYX FIRST DANCE OUT PF WESSEX 9 APRIL 2016

Styx of Stroud, PF Wessex, 9 April 2016 by Paul Horton

Border Morris is an evolving tradition, which has its roots in the Welsh Marches and the counties where it was originally identified (Herefordshire; Worcestershire; Shropshire) by E.C. Cawte in an influential 1963 article[1]. Cawte was the first to define this distinctive form of Morris, proposing the term ‘Welsh Border Morris’. The prefix has been dropped over the years and now ‘Border Morris’ denotes any Morris-style dance performed with sticks (never handkerchiefs) by predominantly black-faced dancers dressed in ‘tatter-coats’, with a simply-stepped, repetitive choreography, and delivered with much whooping and gusto. Although it is predominantly a tradition of the Welsh Borders/Cotswold Edge there is evidence of such dancing farther east: ‘In 1850 Northamptonshire morris team sometimes danced with sticks, ‘flourishing and brandishing them about’, and dancing round the sticks laid on the ground. This was called Bedlam Morris. Possibly this took place somewhere near Brackley. The source is not clear.’[2] As a Northamptonshire lad now living in Gloucestershire, I feel heartened by this – it makes me feel I am connecting to my roots by dancing in a Border Morris fashion.

 

The presence of Border Morris in Gloucestershire has been questioned by some (although there is an unconfirmed account of the young Gustav Holst watching Border Morris, with blackened faces, dancing outside his Cheltenham home), but I feel that it is essentially a movable feast, and to bind it to a particular place or style is a mistake, missing the point entirely. The very idea of ‘borders’ is the epitome of liminality – a threshold place betwixt and between: a place of peril and transformation. Border Morris must retain its edge if it is to stay true to its defining spirit.

The great innovator, John Kirkpatrick, was inspired in part by Northamptonshire’s Bedlam Morris to start his own influential side in Shropshire in the early 70s. And this is the style which as ‘gone viral’ to use a modern term – and is the style I now dance with Styx of Stroud, the Border side I belong to – so full circle (or ‘Brackley Roundabout’)!

It’s worth looking at Kirkpatrick’s approach in more detail The Border Morris style which Cawte identified was given a contemporary spin by John Kirkpatrick with his Bedlam Morris (an approach articulated with provocative wit in his 1979 article, ‘Bordering on the Insane’[3]), who advocated a looser, more eclectic magpie-ish approach: taking what they fancied from existing dancers and customizing them to suit their tastes. This was tantamount to heresy in the conservative circles of the Morris Federation and Morris Ring. Kirkpatrick’s iconoclastic, ‘punkish’ approach was perhaps indicative of the time (the mid-to-late 70s). The Sex Pistols’ ‘Anarchy in the UK’ could not seem further from the bucolic idyll perpetuated by the jingle of bells, squeezebox and fiddle and clack of sticks on a summer’s day outside a pleasant country pub, but Bedlam Morris’ (Kirkpatrick’s group) radical approach to dancing turned Border into the punk of Morris: emphasizing speed and energy, phallic-dancing pushing the bounds of taste, jeans and trainers worn beneath the more ‘traditional’ Morris regalia to blend the traditional and modern (‘the fusion of new and old that I was searching for’, JK), the hollering and lusty clash of staves an antidote to what he memorably described, in contrast to traditional Morris, as:  ‘far more ferocious and flamboyant than this mincing middle-aged antiquated eye-wash.’

To Kirkpatrick’s initial discomfort, Border Morris sides began to pop up adopting his general approach, but customizing it to their tastes. Yet this is the spirit of Border Morris and the reason why it continues to flourish whereas many traditional Morris sides are sadly dying out. Alot of the more traditional sides have ageing members and a problem with recruitment, although the age issue has apparently never been a problem for Border, if the report of a super-annuated side is to be credited: an account of a side in Hereford from 1609 which reports the members being between 96-120 years old, with an average age of 103!

Certainly many of the sides in the ‘mainstream’ Morris scene do look geriatric, but when you see them jigging about in a vigorous manner with broad grins and cheeky twinkles in their eyes you realise that Morris-dancing is the perfect way to stay lithe of limb and spirit. Most of all it evokes an ageless joie-de-vivre, which beyond all intellectualising, academic hair-splitting, and politically-correct hand-wringing is the over-riding impression one gets from watching it and, even more, from joining in. It is damned good fun and, in a boringly sensible and norm-core modern age, wildly impractical, uncommercial, and slightly bonkers.

20160116_142530

Styx of Stroud dancing at the Chepstow Wassail 2016, K. Manwaring

With Border Morris there is a frisson of the wild – a pagan, chthonic energy bursting forth in broad daylight. The blackened faces, outlandish costumes, swirl of rags and tatters, mock battles, shrieks and hollers, boom of the drum, relentless tune earworming its way into your mind, convey something of a dream or nightmare, our collective Shadow brought out into the light.

In terms of my own research (which currently is focused on the Scottish Borders) there is an overlap of motifs, in terms of the longing, liminality and transgression I see recur in the ballads and tales of the Lowlands (and the Southern Appalachians, where many of the songs and stories were taken). Certainly in the latter two are tangible in any Border Morris dance: liminality, in terms of watching something from the Borders, often at ‘liminal’ times of the year most importantly May Day, bordering on good/bad taste, in/sanity, and ancient/modern; transgressive, in terms of the possibility of sex and violence which lie beneath the dances – which take that energy and transforms it. The transgression for some would also be in the apparent appearance of racism, a controversy which lingers around Border Morris like an elephant’s fart in a room – which I will address below.

In brief, then. The blackened faces associated with Morris has been associated with the notion that Morris dancing was actually a bastardisation of ‘Moorish dancing’ (The modern spelling Morris-dance first appears in the 17th century; but the earliest references to its etymological ancestor, Morisk dance,moreys daunce, morisse daunce, start to appear in the mid-15th Century, when there was a fashion for ‘Moorish spectactle’). There is a tantalising possibility that such dances were just called ‘Moorish’ simply because they seem wild and pagan, something ‘exotic’ or ‘other’, and that was merely a contemporary analogy, like saying one film reminds you of another – but with the important caveat that: these dances were probably more ancient that, but were only defined as such at that point. The point at which something gets written  down does not necessarily fix in stone the point at which it came into being. Convention demands that we are bound by the paper trail, but can make educated guesses about what isn’t there. We are, after all, pattern-makers by nature. Another theory suggests it is to do with disguise: because begging was made illegal (Vagrancy Act of 1824). In lean times out of work farmworkers and itinerants would would ‘guise up’ – using the easily available materials of soot and grease – an effective way to keep ‘mum’, to anonymise oneself (a strategy deployed by the Mummers Plays, which usually involve outlandish disguises). A third, rather dubious, theory is that the blackened faces are directly related to the Music Hall traditions which culminated in the notorious ‘Black and White Minstrel Show’. This last one has been vehemently defended by the likes of Chloe Metcalfe, but the fact is there is too much evidence of disguises being used centuries before any such phenomenon to accept that is the reason. The first two factors seem most likely to have influenced Border Morris over the centuries; the third seems a trendy theory wheeled out by academics wanting to make a name for themselves (akin to the tubthumping Marxist critique of the Folk Tradition, Fakelore (Harker, 1979), which Georgina Boyes took up the cause for in her influential treatise, The Imagined Village: Culture, Ideology and the English Folk Revival, 2010). Yet no one can categorically say there is a single ‘smoking gun’.

As with any tradition there is an element of syncretism – a jackdaw creed which will shamelessly filch anything if it’s fit-for-purpose. This includes modern pop culture such as Terry Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’ series, which features Morris (Guards, Guards; Reaper Man; Lords and Ladies, etc), and Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood Cycle (which has inspired a morris side, and even a type of bells). It has spawned what has been called ‘Dark Morris’, which is more amusing than it sounds, basically adopting a satirical, Pythonesque approach to the whole thing. This has given rise to sides inspired by Biker culture (Hells Angels Morris), Neopaganism (Vixen and Wolfshead Morris), Fantasy (Mythago Morris), and Steampunk (Steampunk Morris). Border Morris has become a meme – one that is continually absorbing cultural influences: a modern ‘Celtic’, if you will. With no official set of parameters beyond the bare essentials (sticks, rags, blackened faces) each side customizes, and each individual member tailors, adding their idiosyncratic accretions to their costume (e.g. fairy lights adorning top hats at Chepstow Wassail, January 2016).  This is part of the appeal – personal creative expression within a group, and subculture where, critically, idiosyncratic quirkiness is accepted. Border Morris is very much in affinity with a Bowie-esque ‘kookiness’, a broad church where difference is celebrated. Critics of Border Morris’ ‘unPC-ness’ need to realise this. The vast range of iterations as witnessed at any large-scale Morris event (Hastings Jack-in-the-Green; Upton-on-Severn Folk Festival; Chippenham Folk Festival, etc). is a celebration of diversity, of local distinctiveness as championed by the environmental N.G.O. Common Ground.

Any association between black faces and people of colour (a term so bland as to be meaningless – unless you live in a black-and-white movie we are all people of colour) is in the eye of the beholder – it is certainly not in the consciousness of the performer. There is an important difference between the colour black and shades of brown/diverse flesh tone. If anyone has problem telling the difference then they  probably need their eyes (or shaky beliefs) testing. Black has a symbolic value, as seen in diverse, indigenous cultures around the world e.g. the Kanak tribe of New Caledonia (Nanson). It often denotes the Underworld, death, night, the ancestors, and many other things. Across many of the First Nations tribes of North America black face paint denotes ‘victory and strength’, and as warpaint ‘power, aggression and strength’.[4]

The fact that the word ‘black’ has come to mean people of colour and rarely the actual colour black is an example of what is called semantic bleaching. Now, when we see black it is perhaps inevitable, though incorrect, through cultural conditioning, to associate the colour black with people of colour, but this link within the individual’s mind, and is not one that dancers are responsible for. Tags are prescriptive, often prejudiced, and limiting – hence the resistance by many within the intended demographic against the controversial B.A.M.E. (Black Asian Minority Ethnic) acronym. The same with ‘L.G.B.T.X.’. Who does not wish to be seen and accepted as an individual, not a type? Labels make people lazy. They stop you looking or thinking. The designated is mentally pigeon-holed. They stop being perceived as the unique human being they are. Self-definition is the only safe and acceptable option. So let’s not get signs mixed up with signifiers. Let the sign point where it wants to. N.B. in Border Morris sticks are directed at fellow stick-wielders, nobody else! We are only play-fighting amongst ourselves. Mock-combats transform antagonistic energies, as in the dance popularly known as ‘Feud’.

The fact of the matter is that many Border Morris wear the black because it gives them a degree of anonymity when dancing in public, and it’s as simple and as innocent as that. People can project whatever they want onto Border Morris – who become Rorschach inkblot tests to the onlooker’s subconscious. The overwhelming consensus is that ‘people of colour’ do not seem offended by Border Morris, indeed delight in it (and a fair few dance in Morris and Mummers themselves[5]). It would seem, from numerous anecdotes within the Border Morris community, to be only white people who seem bothered and wishing to complain. Who then, pray tell, is the liberal academic complaining on the behalf of? Of course, any form of prejudice needs challenging – but what often is just a form of Postcolonial posturing is just another form of ‘othering’, of imperialist patronisation (the unelected spokesperson speaking on behalf of an imagined wronged minority). Let’s hear it from horse’s (or Mari Lwyd’s) mouth.

20160116_144257

Mari Lwyd, Chepstow Wassail, Jan 2016. K. Manwaring

Dancing in a Border Morris side one feels inside a tradition. One might feel nervous, excited, preoccupied with the technicalities of the dance, the practicalities of the performance space, the next beer or bowl of chips, the friendly faces in the crowd, and a plethora of other concerns – but never about the colour of the face-paint you are wearing. Because, as the performer, you cannot see that – you’re on the inside looking out. Even facing a fellow dancer you are more likely to be concerned with the position of the sticks than anything. What seems extraordinary to onlookers has become normalised to those within the group. And for those dancing it feels joyous – a selfless public act. This is the spirit in which Border Morris is danced: light-hearted anarchy offering, briefly, a shattering of the status quo. For those who question its validity or rationale, all I can say is: have a go. Come and clack sticks and let’s have a beer afterwards. We’ll see how you feel about it then, once you’re on the other side of the mask.

20160116_144553

Our awesome drummer Dave, at Chepstow Wassail 2016, K. Manwaring

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 12.04.2016

 

Styx of Stroud: https://styxofstroud.com/

 

Key Sources:

  1. C. Cawte, ‘The Morris Dance in Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire,’ Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Dec., 1963), pp. 197-212.

John Kirkpatrick, ‘Bordering on the Insane’, Confessions of a Shropshire Bedlam, from English Dance & Song Vol 41 No 3 1979 (cited on http://www.johnkirkpatrick.co.uk/mo_BorderInsane.asp)

Chloe Metcalfe, ‘To Black Up or Not to Black Up: A Personal Journey’, The Morris Federation, Winter newsletter 2013, https://www.academia.edu/5468139/To_Black_up_Or_Not_to_Black_Up_A_Personal_Journey

‘Morris Dancing’, Pepys Diary website: http://www.pepysdiary.com/encyclopedia/6217/

 

 

[1] EC Cawte, ‘The Morris Dance in Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire’, 1963.

[2] ibid, 1963: p197.

[3] Bordering on the Insane, Confessions of a Shropshire Bedlam, By John Kirkpatrick, from English Dance & Song Vol 41 No 3 1979.

[4] http://www.warpaths2peacepipes.com/native-american-symbols/color-meanings-symbolism.htm

[5] And I have seem Mummers actually change the usual ‘Saracen or Turkish knight’ to something less obviously charged, such as ‘Bold Slasher’, to avoid any obvious Islamophobia. This shows a sensitivity and cultural reciprocity which Morris and Mummers are rarely credited with.

The Puzzle of the Wood

What am I? Nosing here, turning leaves over
Following a faint stain on the air to the river’s edge
I enter water. Who am I to split
The glassy grain of water looking upward I see the bed
Of the river above me upside down very clear
What am I doing here in mid-air?

Ted Hughes, Wodwo

There is something about walking in a wood which stirs something within us. The dappled sun filtering through the canopy, the twisty roots and gnarled boughs, the dripping moss, ferns and fungi, the green silence. It gets the imagination going. We start to see things, or daydream – as though the wood draws out our dreams and give them form.

20160228_121110

This was the late, great novelist Robert Holdstock’s flash of genius – one that came to him in a writing workshop in Milford-on-Sea in 1979, which resulted in an award-winning short story (1981), which led to a multiple prize-winning novel, Mythago Wood (1984), and spawned a series seven connected of novels over the ensuing 25 years. If Holdstock never visited Puzzle Wood in the Forest of Dean (he tragically died of an e-coli infection aged 61, in 2009) then it feels like it visited him – as though it had sprung from his fecund mind.

20160228_120531

The 14 acre stretch of ancient woodland deep in the heart of the Forest of Dean is riddled with pathways which snake their ways amid the rocky outcrops, tangle of trees, creepers, ferns and roots. The result of a collapsed cave system which was mined by the Romans for iron – the mineral yew trees love, as is evidenced by the many mature specimens there, rising from the rock they both cling to and shatter with their tensile roots and long bow limbs. For centuries this curious sylvan labyrinth has drawn visitors to wander and wonder at its origins and denizens. It is easy to imagine it being frequented by all manner of elves, gnomes, goblins, dryads and dwarves. Some believe Tolkien visited it and found inspiration (in fact he visited the nearby Lydney Park, which boasts similar workings – known as ‘Scowles’ – cheek-by-jowl to the ancient temple to Nodens – being surveyed at the time by the archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler. There, hearing of the ‘Lord of the Mines’, as Nodens was called, and seeing the legend-soaked ruins gave him some serious material to conjure with). Yet the magical associations with Puzzle Wood have lingered, enhanced in an interesting way by the many recent TV and film productions shot there: Merlin; Atlantis; Wizards vs Aliens, Dr Who, Jack the Giant Slayer and the latest instalment in the Star Wars franchise: The Force Awakens. Walking amongst the weird tree-scape of Puzzlewood the ‘mythagos’ (to use Holdstock’s term for archetypal forms generated by a human imagination interacting with the wood’s ‘consciousness’) conjured are drawn from the very same pool of myth as his cast (Merlin; King Arthur; Morgana le Fay; time-travelling wizards; Jack the folk hero; dark lords with fiery blades and Force-full maidens) but it is one fed to us from movies and TV series, rather than the oral tradition or literary folk tale. A similar process is occurring as perhaps might have transpired in the Middle Ages, when villagers ventured into the wood, all too aware of the perils to be found there to their souls: demons and witches, wodwoses and wyverns, the Good Folk and Old Scrat himself, evoked by thunderous sermons and stained glass windows – the cinema of its day. The green men and gargoyles that linger in the corners of church architecture were always there to pounce upon the wayward soul.

puzzlewood_82_by_ladyxboleyn-d6cp4ko

Today, a walk in the woods is a lot safer – certainly at the family-friendly Puzzlewood (which offers cute animals, treasure trails, café, picnic areas, and other attractions). But even in such a ‘managed experience’ there is magic to be found. All you have to do is pause and spend a while soaking in the ambience and let your imagination soar. Such a place brings out our natural storyteller, and we start to populate it with our own fanciful musings (for example, a troll beneath a billygoat bridge, as I heard one adult whimsy). A milder form of Holdstock’s mythago-generation occurs. The wood mirrors what we bring into it, but also transforms it – it takes the carbon of our mundane lives and turns it into the oxygen of ideas.

One of the wood’s charming characteristics is the way it has different levels – one moment you are looking down on a Pan’s labyrinth, next thing you know, you’re squeezing through a mossy cleft into a hidden dell. The collapse of the cavern system and the Roman quarry have, in effect, brought the ‘unconscious’ of the landscape into the light. What was hidden in the dark has now been revealed. I think this why it feels so numinous – it feels like a slippage of the waking world into the realm of dream. Suddenly, we’re in the stuff that tales are made of. To explore it is to create your own narrative thread – albeit one that inevitably gets tangled as we get lost, cross the paths of others, double-back, and basically get into a bit of a muddle. Getting lost in a wood, even in a semi-conscious way, makes us all, for a moment, Hansel and Gretel. Yet, the visitor centre is not far away, and the madding world is noisily nearby. It is impossible to forget yourself or your century entirely, but for a little while we almost can. The puzzle is not that it is there, but that we bother to come back at all. For a spell, we can pretend to be babes in the wood, until the cold drives us to the cafe!

20160228_124757

http://www.puzzlewood.net/index.php/puzzlewood-facilties/about-the-wood

Puzzle Wood reminded me of another woodland nearby (Rocks East Woodland, on the borders of Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, and Somerset). Rocks East has it’s own ‘valley of the rocks’ (also probably a Roman quarry), grotto, sculpture trail, turf maze, and peculiar magic. It is a place I have a special connection with – a decade’s worth of stories: http://www.rockseast.org.uk/