Tag Archives: Robin Williamson

A Glint at the Kindling – Robin Williamson at the Drill Hall

Robin Williamson at Poetry on the Border

The Drill Hall, Chepstow, Saturday 18 April

Robin Williamson - Master Bard, at the Drill Hall Chepstow, 18 April 2015, by Kevan Manwaring

Robin Williamson – Master Bard, at the Drill Hall Chepstow, 18 April 2015, by Kevan Manwaring

Robin Williamson, legendary multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter, former member of The Incredible String Band, and honorary Bard of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, has been a major inspiration to me on my bardic path. He’s been performing longer than I’ve been alive – appearing with his band at Woodstock in ’69; when they split in the early 70s he formed his own Merrie Band; then turned towards Celtic myths and legends and the harp. He honed his skills as a storyteller and a poet (see The Craneskin Bag; Selected Writings), and developed a truly bardic style over the years – blending consummate instrumentalism (harp; guitar; whistle; and many others), song, hilarious storytelling, exquisite poetry, and a way of working the crowd which has everyone singing along or repeating his lines of tale, following his actions and making fools of themselves while having a good craic. I first saw him perform at the Sunnyside Inn, in Northampton, back in the early 90s and was blown away. It was that performance that inspired me to become a bard – something that I never realised still existed in modern day Britain until I saw Robin in action, the awen flowing from him like waves of light. And last night, seeing him perform to a packed Drill Hall, I felt that magic again – and magic is hard to come by in this threadbare age. At one point Robin said, apologising for his flights of fancy, that he ‘took the main route through the Sixties’, being part of the Counter Culture with the String Band, who exuded a Tolkienesque aesthetic, a fellowship of musical hobbits and elves spinning their skeins of enchantment at venues like Gandalf’s Garden. He also reflected poignantly that he knew more people dead than alive – as many of his friends and contemporaries had passed on (most recently John Renbourn whom he made a Grammy-nominated album with, Wheels of Fortune – the title track of which he performed with feeling). A invocation to bring good luck, it seems to be a personal cri-de-coeur. At times, it must feel for Robin – an outlier of the Sixties, and of other centuries and worlds – as though he is Oisin himself, returned from Tir nan Og to find all that he has known and loved turned to dust 300 years past, a lonely traveller in a prosaic age. And yet he managed to summon the magic tonight in an enthralling set which had me rivetted from beginning to end. After being introduced by William Ayot, director of the Centre for the Oral Tradition, who host spoken word events ‘on the borders’ in Chepstow, Robin began with some exquisite harp and one of his masterful poems, ‘Northern Shores’ about the mythscape of his Glaswegian childhood. Then he skilfully segued into one of his classic, ever poignant songs, ‘Political Lies’ – even more resonant now than when he wrote it in the 80s. Then he left the Ordinary World behind, having propitiated it, taking us into the chancy world of Celtic wonder tales, with ‘Blind Rafferty the Poet and the Jealous Hero’ – a hilarious multi-layered story. He ended his first set with the title track of his new album, ‘Trusting in the Rising Light’, which wove mature reflections with bardic utterances. After the break we were treated to his version of Tristan and Isolde, based upon an early Welsh variant. He followed this with a masterful telling of ‘The Bonny Green Bird’ – an epic Scottish wonder tale. Then he ended with, unusually, a Jerry Lee Lewis song, ‘I’ve tried everything except you’, which left us with a spiritual message. Yet Robin is no proselytizer, despite his Christian beliefs – he seeks to entertain, and he really pulled out the stops tonight. I’ve seen him perform many times, but never see him get up and tell stories in such animated fashion, using his whole body. He can be hysterically funny at times, using anachronisms creatively, such as comparing the ‘tune-twig’ in the Bonny Green Bird to an mp3 player and so forth. He manages to straddle the worlds – the mundane and the magical – in this way. He left me brimming with awen, my cauldron refilled. Once again, he has reminded me what a Bard is all about. Once again, he has inspired me to continue on my path.

Robin Williamson site:


Poetry on the Border:


Stories to Save the World

26-29 November

A flurry of fabulous events over the last few days – a feast that I’m still digesting…

Thursday I was invited back to be a guest panelist in the Cafe of Ideas, this time held in Bath at Chapel Arts Centre – once again discussing narrative and its impact on things. The audience was ‘intimate’ – it was hard to compete with a Hollywood movie star turning on the lights – but it was a quality event nonetheless, with a thought-provoking discussion evolving from questions from the host, Pete, and the audience. I talked about one of my favourite themes, the Hero’s Journey, and cited as an example the event up the road: the celebrity switch-on of Bath’s Xmas lights, relating it, with a nod and wink, in mythic terms (the discussion had been largely dominated by economics – perhaps not surprisingly as a banker was on the panel)… A benighted land devastated by the great dragon, Recession, needs a hero – fortunately one lives close by (until recently a house in the Circus, and Midford Castle). A man called Cage comes to aid of the townsfolk, who have gathered together in anxiety – hoping their prayers will be answered. Cage is the Lightbringer – with his electric power he banishes the night and, all hope, the dragon Recession, bringing prosperity and happiness to the town once more. The tills rang out and the shopkeepers lived happily ever after. The end.

Narrative is all around us – the myths we live by, the consoling fictions, the grand narrative that dominate the Way Things Are. By being aware of them, we can work with them, even change them. Certainly change our own. The world needs different ‘stories’ to live by, because the ones we have are clearly not working.

And without narrative, life is meaningless – we are storytelling creatures, pattern-makers. Story is how we make sense of the world, our messy lives.

And even the storyteller needs to be to told a story now and again – to simply listen and be held by another’s narrative.

On Friday I went to see a play of my friend and fellow gardener, Svanur – a two-hander called The Big Deal, followed by a play called The Small Print – a brilliant ‘double-act’ (the two talented actors played different roles in each – a suicidal woman and an ‘angel’; a Council worker and an inquisitive old woman). As great concept often are, it’s very simple – a play in a pub – but I haven’t seen it done so well before. The staging, production and direction was all professional. The show is going to Clifton, Bristol, later this week – the Lansdown Inn, Thurs-Sat. Worth catching!

Saturday was the event of possibly the year – Heaven’s Gate, Stroud’s first festival of storytelling, poetry and music, co-organised by my friend Jay Ramsay and Rick Vick to celebrate William Blake’s birthday. It was a night of a thousand bards (but only one bar – which unfortunately closed before I could get a well-deserved beer … waiting til after my set, which wasn’t until gone eleven! It had been a long-haul – a Bard Day’s Night) I was performing along with a fantastic line-up including Robin and Bina Williamson (they bumped into me while looking for the venue); Phoenix (the supergroup of Stroud – Jay and friends); Kirsten Morrison; Aidan and his lovely pianist companion from Prague; Anthony Nanson, storyteller; William Ayot; Paul Matthews and a host of other poets – plus, most magnificently of all, Irina Kuzminsky, who had come all the way from Melbourne to launch her book, Dancing with Dark Goddesses, published by my press, Awen, with an incredible dance-recital tour-de-force. After the gig, I popped the champagne to wet the baby’s head with Irina and Angela, the designer – a fab team effort, as was the evening in a larger sense, a collective act of art. Everybody shone and the audience were very supportive and appreciative – the Sub Rooms, a large venue, were packed out. A fantastic success!

I performed a story I wrote especially for the event, The Gate, inspired by Blake’s phrase – Heaven’s Gate (reclaiming it from its associations with Michael Cimino’s ‘disasterous’ overbudget flop). I responded to Rob Hopkins challenge in a recent Resurgence:

there are a paucity of stories that articulate what a lower-energy world might sound like, smell like, feel like and look like. What is hard, but important is to be able to articulate a vision of a post-carbon world so enticing that people leap out of bed every morning and put their shoulders to the wheel of making it happen.

This, coupled with Blake’s gate, was my inspiration, and that is what I set out to do with my simple parable, which I kept deliberately ‘light’ (following the notion that we can enter the kingdom of heaven as children – by letting ourselves be ‘held’ by a story, in a state of Keatsian negative capability, or Blakean innocence). The response was very positive. I believe art, at its best, is a gateway (rather than a mere mirror of the world) and get us closer to achieving this goal. We need stories of hope and deep beauty to defeat the gloom, the paralysis of despair, and the denialists.

The next morning we had a post-gig breakfast in Costa (the only cafe open in Stroud on a Sunday. We would have preferred lovely independent wholefood eatery, Star Anise… Instead, we turned this chain into the Left Bank of the Cotswolds for a couple of hours, as the surviving bards gathered). We were all wiped out from an epic night – but this broke down any remaining barriers. There was warmth, there was awen – and something wonderful happened. For a little while, the gate opened… Such a huge act of love will not go unnoticed by the universe! Well done to Jay, Rick and all those who performed and made it happen. Absolute stars, all of them – shining beyond the light pollution of the mainstream, the gaudy dazzle of the Media. Blake would have been touched by such a show of artistic solidarity … the City of Art descended and Albion’s children shone.

The Hill of Wells

The Hill of Wells

21st March 2009

‘My eyes made fountains’, John Masefield

Looking towards British Camp, Malvern Hills, 22rd March '09

Looking towards British Camp, Malvern Hills, 22rd March '09

I am filled with awen having just seen Robin and Bina Williamson perform their Songs for the Rising Year at Malvern Wells village hall – around the corner from where I’m staying (a lovely B&B, the Dell House, sleepily ensconced within its leafy bower as the name suggests). It was a joy to see and hear them both again – a fitting ‘end’ to my bardic journey (in the context of my book, The Way of Awen: journey of a bard – due in imminently) for Robin is a living embodiment of the Penbeirdd – a worthy inheritor of Taliesin’s title for my money. I am a bard, but Robin is on another level entirely, and shows in his consummate skill and stage professionalism how far I have yet to go – not that I imagine matching Robin’s huge talent and achievement (he is a living legend, after all). It is rightly humbling to note there is always someone more advanced than you. In truth, we all have our own mountains to climb – and whatever size that, the achievement of reaching its particular summit should not be diminished by the mountains of others.

The fact that I made it here, however humble an immram, is a kind of ‘mountain’. This morning I was sluggishly recovering from the previous night – a big night when we launched Jay’s book (Places of Truth: journeys into sacred wilderness – working on it whetted my appetite for such places) at Waterstones, Bath; an event fellow poet and tutor Mary Palmer asked me to organise. So I had to co-ordinate the performers, promote it, MC it, and publish Jay’s book (being a writer requires more skills than ‘just’ writing these days – gone are the days of waxing lyrical in ivory towers and perhaps just as well). It was a good night – the awen flowed. All the performers were very professional so helped to carry the weight – it was a collective effort and and credit to all those who took part… And, what a relief, we did it! Despite last minute ‘labour pains’ we got Jay’s book out on schedule (collected from the printers the day before – phew!). It’s been an intense couple of weeks – stacks of marking, Jay’s book, my book, Waterstones, Bournemouth talk last Monday, Bath Writers’ Workshop, my evening classes… I felt I deserved a break. It’s essential to replenish the cauldron – and where better than on the hills of wells, where Long Will, as William Langland was known locally, lay down ‘tired out from (his) wanderings’ and had his visionary dream ‘among the Malvern hills’ of his divine allegory, Piers the Plowman.

Having decided to bunk off ‘school’ (my marking not quite finished, but the sun was shining and shouting Carpe Deum!) I packed my saddlebags and hit the road. It was a lovely sunny road/ride-up along the edge of the Cotswolds and across the Severn plain. When it’s like this the bike is a joy to ride. I felt like ‘king of the road’ again, shaking off the final cobwebs of winter. After I had checked in, I went for an early evening walk – determined to catch the last rays of the day. The golden light had lost its keenness, but in the back of my mind I had my favourite line of English poet (written by Malvern poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning): ‘the sun on the hill forgot to die’. It was thrilling to think these very hills I ascended might have inspired that line. And true, the light seemed to linger, as I hiked up through the woods like Wandering Angus (a fire in my head fed by the oxygen and kindling around me). The woods worked their magic – it was good to arrive, to connect with the genius loci. To orientate myself. The path zigzagged up through the steep woods. A collapsed retaining wall at Holy Well meant I had to take a more circuitous route to the top, but finally, I cleared the tree-line and made the ridge at sunset – though the sun was obscured behind a low bank of cloud. And yet there was still the dusk to savour. Two guys passed by, but otherwise I was alone. I called for awen on the heights. Satisfied, (planning to return for a proper walk the following day) I descended through the darkening woods.

Now I had to attend to physical needs – sustenance before the concert. The only eating place was a Thai restaurant, not quite what I had in mind. Instead I grabbed a sandwich and a packet of crisps from the garage (served by a cheerful Oriental girl). I’d had a good lunch before setting off, and plenty of snacks so wasn’t ravenous. I freshened up for the evening’s entertainment. It was great to go the nearby gig and enjoy a couple of real ales (which I would not have been able to do if I’d been staying further away – the Dell was a real find). In the break I said hello and Robin remembered me straight away, reminding me to his wife, though I hadn’t seen him for a couple of years since booking him for an event in Bath. His lovely wife Bina thanked me for what I said about them in The Bardic Handbook. I gave Robin a dedicated copy of An Ecobardic Manifesto – for he is cited in it as an exemplar. Afterwards we talked further about poets – I mentioned Vernon Watkins, as I’d been on the Gower recently; and Robin talked of Ifor Davies; which brought to mind Phil Tanner, bard of Llangennith. I was flattered when Robin called me ‘a pretty good poet’ (which, compared to Bob Dylan’s comment about Robin – ‘not bad’ – is positively glowing!) We joked about hanging out on lonely knolls, hoping to bump into the Queen of Elfland. I said I had done this on the Eildon hills, but had no such luck. Robin had been there too – and perhaps faired better!

It was great to sit in the front row – having got the last-but-one ticket earlier that day – and be fed by a master of awen. I am so glad I came – I didn’t decide for definite until that afternoon, when I reserved the ticket, found and booked the B&B, packed and blatted up here – it just required faith … in the Way of Awen.

The next morning, after a peaceful night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast, I headed for the hills, making a beeline for British Camp, where Langland was said to have been inspired to write his famous medieval poem. I yomped up the hill in my bike leathers – not ideal for walking in! Breathless, I collapsed on the summit and stared at the blue bowl of sky. Sunlight glittered on the reservoir below and although not quite the original source reminded me of Langland’s lines: ‘…I lay down to rest under a broad ban by the side of stream, and leaned over gazing into the water, it sounded so pleasant that I fell asleep’. The hill fort was impressive – its steep flanks would have made a formidable defensive structure – and I wondered whether Tolkien had been inspired by it for his ‘the ancient watch-tower of Amon Hen’, whilst walking here with Lewis – and by the impressive ‘beacons’ the beacon fires which Gondor called for aid to Rohan. The local bishops were less friendly, the Earl of Gloucester raising the 13th Century Red Earl’s Dyke between their respective bishoprics. Caractacus was said to have made his last stand here, (a small cave, Clutter’s Cave, is said to be the resting place of the British hero who rise to his countrymen’s aid) inspiring Elgar, who said in 1934 when suffering from his final illness: “If ever after I’m dead you hear someone whistling this tune on the Malvern Hills, don’t be alarmed. It’s only me.” I can see why the composer found such inspiration here. Given long enough it may untap the awen in anyone. Today I only had a brief taste, but it was enough to turn on the taps. Moving onto Black Camp, I parked up, stashed my togs, and followed the undulating ridge north, enjoying its spectacular natural roller-coaster. Turning back along its leeward side, I found a quiet sunny spot overlooking the western vale and penned these lines:

On Malvern Hills

On these lettered hills I find peace.

Thick as cream the Spring sunshine pours

over the wooded wolds, cloistered

from the world. Here song waits, poised,

a bird in the air – waiting

to strike at any fecund second.

The sky is full of poetry, the green Earth

budding with awen.

From these pure springs Masefield, Browning, Auden

drank. Elgar whistled symphonies in the silent folds.

Inklings rambled, forging a landscape of myth and

language, and Langland dreamt his rustic allegory.

From the defiant fastness of British Camp

to Worcestershire Beacon

something positively English

can be gleaned about this charmed island

of six hundred million year old granite,

enduring, quietly conquering

all who reach its sanctuary. From

its many wells it suckles all.

Great Mother Malvern.

Her children take

shelter amongst her skirts,

nourished by selfless springs.

Thank the wild saints, the spirits of place,

for this hallowed spot, this bedrock of Albion.