In 2004 I was commissioned to write a choreo-poem by the artist Beth Townley. The actual performance didn’t take place, but the poem ‘Dragon Dance’ was completed. Here is a youtube clip of me performing it from memory. It is in five main sections – each section honouring one of the corners of the British Isles and Ireland: Logres (England); Kernow (Cornwall); Erin (Ireland); Alba (Scotland); Cambria (Wales). This is not to see them as political units, and nothing of that sort is implied by their association here. I see them as geological facts – ‘a small clusters rocks brought together by fate’, and by celebrating their differences, I hope to encourage a holistic vision of their shared journey. In short, Unity. I have attempted to honour the genius loci – the spirit of place – as she manifests in each part of these remarkable islands. Over the last few years I have started to perform it in each part of the land – in the Fens, in Cornwall, in Wales, in Scotland…(Erin next!) I have found it very powerful to recite in situ. It is my way of giving something back, of saying thank you to that place for its inspiration, ancient monuments, stored ancestral wisdom and legacy. It has been performed en masse at the World Heritage Site of Stonehenge as a liturgy by the Cotswold Pagan Society during a private access ceremony – a proud moment! If the poem inspires you to visit the locations mentioned, do let me know. I’ll be delighted.
Although I am not a Christian (but not un- or anti-) and Christmas means little to me in terms of its specific religious symbolism I can appreciate the wider mythic meta-tropes at work in narratives about the return of the light in the depths of winter – be it in the form of an avatar, sun king, solar deity, or simply the sun itself – and I enjoy Yuletide with all its festive trimmings. I love the holly and the ivy, the mistletoe, the tree, the candles, the wassailing, the rosy-cheeks of the carol singers, the shining eyes of the children and most of all – the gathering around the hearth and connecting with loved ones. Beyond all the consumerism and emotional blackmail (the Scrooge story hauled out every year to make curmudgeonly humbugs buckle) this is ultimately what the season is all about, as encoded in the message that is often forgotten in the stressful run-up to the big day: Peace on Earth and Goodwill to all Mankind. A message often drowned out in the endless partying, the booze-ups and bust-ups, the relentless television and shopping frenzy. Yet I decided to try and ‘do my bit’ and acquit myself socially by opening my doors to friends last night for my Yuletide Gathering.
I spent the day preparing the house – cleaning, decorating (with holly and ivy I had gathered outside), making food, sorting out music and so forth. It was quite relaxing – especially the cooking: nothing elaborate, just a vegetable winter stew, mulled wine and mince pies. Once the fairy lights were up and I had hung the mistletoe and lit the candles and some frankincense and myrrh, I felt I had created a lovely Christmassy ambience. All I needed now were some guests … I guess I shouldn’t have expected anyone to turn up on time, but when it was 7.30pm and still no one had arrived I was starting to feel a little anxious … the nasty goblin in my head telling me ‘you don’t have any friends, nobody likes you!’ – then I heard footsteps and they all started to arrive. Suddenly the party was happening!
I served up goblets of mulled wine as folk arrived – wrapped up on a chilly night (it did try to snow earlier; and the country is beset with wintry conditions – flurries of flakes on the tracks!) and offered them some stew. Folk brought offerings and soon the kitchen surfaces were overflowing. After the majority of the guests had arrived and made themselves comfortable I asked for some peace to start a session of sharing – beginning with a poem about stillness, to tie in with the time of year. I talked briefly about how the solstice means stillness: the atmosphere changed, became ‘sacred’ – just through the simple act of going round in a circle and sharing. People offered poems, songs, anecdotes. There was a poem in Icelandic by my friend Svanur and a song in Korean by Jin (a government-censored protest song about ‘dew’). I ended the first session by getting everyone to read out a verse of Carol Anne Duffy’s poem, The Twelve Days of Christmas, from the Radio Times – very topical and amusing in places. It allowed those who didn’t have a chance to join in.
Later, I asked people to sit round once more to share the meadhorn – an ‘old tradition’ of mine, which actually has precedents dating back to the Dark Ages. It’s mentioned in Beowulf and in the 13th Century a custom was observed that involved toasting ‘Wassail!’ and replying ‘drink hail!’ before passing on the wassail bowl/meadhorn – with a kiss. Everyone joined in this with gusto – the first time, folk were a little embarrassed and came out with relatively trivial toasts, a little glib or silly. The second time it got a little bit more authentic, and the third time, folk were being far more genuine. It worked its simple magic. A powerful but effective way to create sacred space.
And then the partying started in earnest – whether it was the mead, or the tension release, but suddenly, dramatically the atmosphere changed to something far more merrier than before. Songs were sung and everyone joined in – corny Christmas carols, but good fun. There was some Icelandic blues (!) from Svanur and other ‘campfire classics’ like the Pete Seeger song, ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’ It turned out to be truly great night. There was the perfect amount of people there, and a good mix. Everyone seemed to get on and didn’t seem to want to leave…
The best sign of a good night is the atmosphere of the room afterwards. There was a lovely warm glow. Good vibes. Everyone was said goodbye with hugs and kisses. There wasn’t too much to clear up – the worst was tidied away, the washing up left til morning. It was late. Went to bed in good spirits and awoke with fond memories. – and a head not too fuzzy, considering. A good fry-up and a walk in the winter sun and I was feeling on top of the world.
Changing of the Bards
On Sunday night I went along to the annual contest for the Bardic Chair, this year held at ‘Back to Mine’, a nightclub – another first! Each bard gets to stamp their identity on it. Master Duncan, 13th Bard of Bath, being our youngest to date (until tonight!) has appealed to a younger demographic with his hiphop style and topical lyrics. Tonight he pulled out all the stops to create an entertaining night blending poetry, music and dance.
The dancefloor ‘well’ was transformed into a grove with Christmas trees from the farm of one of Duncan’s contacts. Birdsong was piped through the PA, creating an effect very similar to my Garden of Awen, started two months before… Ah, well – a sign of flattery I suppose. The first half consisted of a cabaret of various acts: a powerful singer-guitarist; a rapper; a flamenco guitarist; and a rather raunchy dance troupe called Nice-as-Pie.
After the break, MC Duncan performed a couple of his poems as his final performance as Bard of Bath, before the contestants were called up. A coin was tossed and called. ‘Tails never fails’, said Jack Dean, and sure enough it was, though Duncan thought it was ‘heads’! Perhaps he had a suspicion that it would have been easier on Dave Selby, the other act, because Jack’s blistering tour-de-force was a hard act to follow. Not wanting in ambition, he interpreted the theme, ‘The Last B—-‘, in a Biblical sense, telling us he was going to do a version of the Bible! Although this wasn’t strictly the case, he did cover the history of the universe up until 2012, ending in a kind of armageddon – the finale being an ‘8 Mile’ rap battle between Jesus and Jack! Funny and technically impressive, as he performed over his backing track in perfect time.
The other contestant, Dave Selby, had a tough job following that, but soldiered on like a trooper. Although hampered by a Withnailian weakness, he entertained the crowd with a grim fairy tale delivered in a louche Dave Allen style. Quite distinctive! He made people laugh, and it help make it a contest – and should be applauded for his contribution.
Throughout the performances, Richard Carder, chief druid, held his hands over his ears, sitting next to the other two judges, like one of the three wise monkeys (hear no evil). The effect was unintentionally hilarious.
While the judges deliberated the dancers came on – like a pared down Pan’s People – doing very well in such a small space!
Then finally the judges returned and Master Duncan announced the winner – milking it for dramatic effect, X-Factor style – no surprise to hear it was Jack! He was called up, stumbling over a stool (life is full of unintentionally comic moments, don’t you find?) Duncan handed over the robes and Jack performed a poem, receiving a warm round of applause. He was clearly a popular choice.
Then the Bards of Bath present were called up – which I wasn’t keen to do, being ‘off duty’ and because the ceremony is so naff. We stood in a circle, held hands and Richard half-heartedly took us through the Druid Vow (x2) and an awen (x1). It seemed ludicrous in that setting, but has become ‘tradition’. Lords know what the crowd there thought of it all! The day after we perform a proper inauguration ceremony at the Circus – noon on the solstice: this is the time for ritual, not a night-club. It was a very poor attempt to create sacred space, and I suggested to Richard the next day that we skip this element.
Miranda, who embroidered the Bardic robes and Chair backing, said to me it had lost its spirit – no mention of the solstice, or what it all means. A fair point. Tim, its much-missed founder, had a knack of relating to widely different audiences. Richard, who took over as Chief Druid, should have gone up at the start and introduced things, put it into context, but he was late arriving. I wonder how many people who came along that night realised what it was all about…? In hindsight I could have done some leaflets to place on the tables – a little background about the Bardic Chair, or had my Book of the Bardic Chair on sale… (if I hadn’t been stupidly busy over the last few days). Still, it was a ‘successful’ night – a good atmosphere, some great performances, and a promising new bard. Whether we like it or not, the Bardic Chair has a life of its own now – and looks like it will continue, in one form or another – with new blood revitalising it every year. And since the next generation are our future, garnering their interest is essential for the Bardic Tradition’s vitality and longevity.
If Dr Who can have a young actor fill the role (Matt Smith hailing from my old home town, Northampton) then perhaps we can too! As with the super-annuated Timelord, the subsequent inheritor’s of the title, have become increasingly younger (like Merlin, or Benjamin Button, living in reverse). Our annual ‘changing of the bards’ has become as much a part of the modern Yuletide celebrations (in Bath) as RTD’s rebooted Who has on Christmas Day telly – but of course, our entertainment is live, grassroots and community-focused. Long may it continue.
As I left it started to snow.
The following day – the ‘official’ solstice – a small group of us gathered in the Circus in the centre of Bath to hold our traditional winter solstice ceremony and inauguration of the new bard. It was freezing and icy underfoot as I made my way (carefully) to the Circus, through the crowds of Christmas shoppers. I got there at noon to find Richard the druid and the two bards, outgoing and new. That was it. We were joined by Thommie Gillow, the 12th Bard, her wee bab and a couple of her friends from Cardiff. So, our small and merry band set to work. Richard led the ceremony of ‘Alban Arthuan’, as modern druids like to call it, and kept it mercifully brief. We used scripts, which isn’t my preference, but they helped since most of the participants had little experience in such things, but they all joined in in good spirits. We called the quarters: I had to call the east, my usual (Richard didn’t even ask, knowing that’s my preference – although on such a chilly day, calling the fire in the south would have been a better option!). We recited the Gorsedd Prayer and did an awen. Jack was welcomed to the Gorsedd and asked to perform a poem. Master Duncan also shared one. Halfway through the ceremony, Thommie suddenly dashed off, as though filled too full of awen – a traffic warden had spotted her car! She caught him just in time, but had to move it. All the while, her little toddler never made a sound but just stood there, with enormous gloves on, looking astonished (the default look of toddlers). Richard brought the ceremony to a brisk end … I suggested three cheers for the new bard (although in the cold, it came out as ‘three chairs’!). I took a couple of photographs for the press release and archives and then we separated, leaving only Richard and I to decamp to the Chequers for some much-needed refuelling… It’s been a Bard Day’s Night!
And the bardism does not end there – tonight is the tenth anniversary of the Bath Storytelling Circle, which should be a special evening. I am going to be one of the three hosts, as one of the organisers of the circle (along with Anthony, its founder, and David, its current ‘chair’). There should be a feast of fine storytelling, poetry and song … what better way to spend the longest night of the year?
The oral tradition is very much alive in Bath … but don’t tell anyone I told you so ;0)