Tag Archives: Skyros

The Death and Rebirth of Rupert Brooke

As the Gallipoli centenary commemorations get under way today (24 April) it is a poignant time to remember the passing of English poet, Rupert Brooke, who died on the way to the conflict aboard a Royal Navy vessel in the Aegean on 23rd April, 1915. He contracted septicaemia during a stopover in Egypt. Weakened by this, a mosquito tipped the balance and he died aboard, aged only 27. Unusually he was buried on the southern island of Skyros in an olive grave, where later a memorial was erected by his mother and friends. Brooke, born in Tahiti, educated at Rugby and Cambridge, moved in the elite literary circle of the Bloomsbury Set, but also was one of the Dymock Poets (a coterie of poetic friends who ensconced themselves in a village in rural Gloucestershire: they comprised Lascelles Abercrombie, Wilfrid Gibson, John Drinkwater, Edward Thomas, and Robert Frost. Together they went on long walks, drank cider, wrote poetry, reviews, and criticism, and produced New Numbers, which although it only ran to 4 issues published the iconic poem of Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’ for the first time).

However tragic Brooke’s death – and of course he was only one of many who lost their lives in the Great War, the timing of his passing could not be more iconic. April 23rd, St George’s day (patron Saint of England, curiously enough born in Cappadocia, in what is now modern day Turkey), plus Shakespeare’s birth and death-day. This all fed into the legend. His death attained an almost mythic quality – the death of ‘the most handsomest man in England’, with the looks of an Adonis, on a Greek isle, on the way to fight for his country, as though he was some kind of James Frazer-ish solar hero who must perish for the vitality of the land (The Golden Bough and all that). In a similar way to Saint George, martyred in the Middle East, who was adopted by the Crusaders as a Christian icon, and later promoted to patron saint of England in 1222, Brooke’s Mediterranean demise was taken up as a symbol of patriotic sacrifice for King and Country, a PR boost to a dubious war – as the gungho Bosch-bashing of the early days gave way to the grim realities and heavy toll of industrialised warfare.

Brooke’s funeral was almost a state occasion – buried in St Paul’s with an eulogy by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and many of the great and the good in attendance,  his passing was marked by a letter to The Times (April 26, 1915) by Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, sounded a note that was to swell over the months and years that followed:

The thoughts to which he gave expression in the very few incomparable war sonnets which he has left behind will be shared by many thousands of young men moving resolutely and blithely forward into this, the hardest, cruellest, and the least-rewarded of all the wars that men have fought. They are a whole history and revelation of Rupert Brooke himself. Joyous, fearless, versatile, deeply instructed, with classic symmetry of mind and body, he was all that one would wish England’s noblest sons to be in days when no sacrifice but the most precious is acceptable, and the most precious is that which is most freely proffered.

His dashing photographic portraits helped to secure his place in the heart of the nation – the bloom of England cruelly cut down. Published by friend Edward Marsh (who wrote a memoir of the poet’s life in the months following his death), his Selected Poems sold in the thousands, and Brooke became the ‘poetry idol’ of his day. ‘The Soldier’ was co-opted as a patriotic cri-de-coeur, used in countless funerals ever since. Brooke was a mercurial, almost quixotic figure – as many of his earlier poems attest (eg ‘Heaven’) — a young brilliant mind who had ambivalent feelings about the War. Flippant remarks such as ‘Come and die, it’ll be great fun’, need to be read with awareness of the whimsical irony with which he laced much of his writing. Typical of a young mind, he played with ideas, with voices, with ‘attitudes’ – never to mature into a consistent authentic voice. What he would have made of his post-humous recruitment as the War Office’s poster-boy, we can only imagine. And yet, his death bequeathed him a kind of Valhalla-like status, and his legend lives on to this day.

Another Earth part three

I’m floating in the blood-warm waters of the bay – the pellucid brine holds me as I literally drift off. I repeat to myself a mantra I came up when I discovered the knack of ‘sleeping on water’ in the Red Sea of Egypt:

I am nothing,
I am everything…
I am nothing.
I am everything…
I am nothing.
is nothing.
is everything…

(‘In the Lagoon’, The Immanent Moment, Kevan Manwaring, Awen 2011)

This helps to remind me of my insignificant place in the grand scheme of things – I’m just a drop in the ocean. Yet we are connected to the great Web of Life, however humble – from the tiniest microbe and ant to the mighty elephant, the redwood, the blue whale… I like this feeling of shedding the skin, the layers of ego and veils of personality. Although perhaps it is impossible to truly escape. However far you go you always end up meeting yourself. Travelling to the far side of the planet (relatively speaking) I felt closer to my loved ones, and more attached to my neck of the woods – I was missing my true friends back home and the kind of landscape I can have a conversation with. However paradisal this place is I simply don’t speak its lingo. I will only ever be a tourist in anywhere but the west. Northern Europe, a temperate climate, the beautiful melancholy of autumn and winter – something about it agrees with my soul. As our English Orpheus Nick Drake once sang:

I never felt magic crazy as this
I never saw moons knew the meaning of the sea
I never held emotion in the palm of my hand
Or felt sweet breezes in the top of a tree
But now you’re here
Brighten my northern sky

Yet still, as I floated there, the sun glinting on the waves, flashes came of things I have seen …. ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion (well not quite – the arclights of squid boats illuminating the night sea like UFOs outshining constellations maybe…). Nevertheless, there have been moments of wonder and madness …

Starting my writing workshop on the beach in a grove of palm trees only to be drowned out by a deafening dusk chorus of mysterious birds…
Visiting the spirit houses that every dwelling here has – with their offerings of rice, liquor, tobacco to effigies of Buddhist saints, the King and Queen – with toy cars and other objects of desire iconically placed around them.
Giant turtles swimming stately in their tanks like geriatrics doing lengths – on Turtle Sanctuary island (bequeathed by the Queen for their protection) – the pattern on their backs, a rorschach patina, the ultimate depth psychology.

The acrobatic fire jugglers on the beach – young boys playing Prometheus-like with plumes of flames, pois spinning hypnotically in the hot night.

The intense trill of the cicadas as I ran through the forest barefoot on ‘Robinson Crusoe island’, wearing only my swimming trunks – a Tarzan moment!

Swimming under a full moon by myself – dancing with my moonshadow in the sea.

Being shaken to bits on a speed-boat as it bounced along the waves.

Reading on the beach before cooling off with a dip or a cold beer.

Savouring the taste of papaya as I breakfasted at sunrise, sitting under a palm tree.

The list goes on … but I won’t! Somewhere I can hear a hundred monkeys clapping and its time to get out of the water. (‘Come in number 78 – your time is up!’).

There were moments of connection – though they were sporadic. Friends or allies on my Hero’s Journey cropped up in unexpected places; whileas those I expected to connect with I didn’t at all. I am certainly partly to blame (let mea culpa be tattooed on my brow). Spending a couple of weeks with 14 people is challenging for the likes of me. I’m happy to socialise if I can have my space. I need my solitude to preserve my sanity and I grabbed what I could from the busy daily schedule. I was missing my good friends back home, my partner. A decent conversation with a kindred spirit.

On the final night a couple of participants (bi-focalisers, I called them) organised a ‘Love Cabaret’ (as it fell on St Valentine’s Day). I performed a small set of poems, and other chipped in an ode, a song, or a skit. We had a torchlit ‘last supper’ on the beach, waves lapping at our feet like the last days of Atlantis. There was a ritual dimension to it – we were asked to write what we wanted to let go of on a piece a paper which was burnt in a stoneware vase, which cracked (to pressure of too much catharsis in one go!). Then we wrote our prayers and blessings on a floating lantern, which we sent up into the sky. Its lift-off was touch and go, but eventually it floated free of the trees – into the night.

Relieved it was all over, I walked along the beach in the dark, letting the waves caress my feet.

Whatever marks we mark in the sand, the sea comes and smooths it all a way again. The sighing waves soothed away the internal (eternal?) dialogue, as I drifted off – succumbing to the Sandman.

Something about going away makes you really appreciate what you have. I looked forward to the quieter pleasures of home. Thailand is a riotously camp assault on the senses – part of it is very kitsch, a plastic fantasy (reality shrink-wrapped, a fake one at that). It often feels like you’re getting a pirate copy of the real thing (from designer fakes and ladyboy dance shows to bland cheese slices in film; insipid Yellow Label tea; & several dodgy brands of lager all vying to be Thailand’s answer to Duff Beer). Yet life is there – in all its messy, smelly, squalid actuality. Somehow amidst it all, life thrives.

The whole experience was quite unreal to be honest. Did it really happen? I don’t have much evidence. A rapidly fading tan and jetlag. As well running out of money two days early (I couldn’t use my card on the island – but broke, I still gave my last Baht to a Buddhist monk, trusting in the universe to carry me home: it did) I also lost my camera on the last day – an old battered one, but still – just when I decided to go for a walk around the island, taking souvenir snapshots.

Some things are to be preserved with the camera of memory.

At the end of a rickety pier a ramshackle boat was moored. I was ready to jump aboard and see where it took me.

After a fortnight on ‘Fantasy Island’ I was ready to leave – where was that dwarf and Ricardo Montalban when you needed them? ‘De plane! De plane!’

It was only in the lift back to Bangkok that my ears finally popped. Did someone turn the volume up to eleven?

Another Earth part two

I was waiting for my ears to pop. They hadn’t sorted themselves out since we’d landed. Crossing the short distance to Koh Samed – the small ferry nosing its way across the warm waters of the Gulf of Thailand on a perfectly blue sunny day, (temperature about 35 degrees C) I was beginning to feel relaxed. The sea-breeze, the warm sun on my face, the tang of breeze, and the prospect of a couple of weeks on an island paradise was beginning to take the edges of my road-weariness. And yet, my ears-valves refused to open fully. It made for an interesting acoustic. Conversation was muffled, but audible. It sounded like me head was in a cloth-bag. Still, I was feeling good – I love boat trips and ferry crossings to small islands in particular. As Koh Samed came into view against a sunset, the words of Cavafy’s poem came to my once again (‘May you enter harbours you are seeing for the first time’). I was last in Thailand seventeen years ago, backpacking around on a budget with my half-Italian, half-Iranian girlfriend of the time, Emily. We spent time on some of the Thai islands further south (Koh Tao and Koh Nang Yuan stand out) but not Koh Samed – so this was a ‘new harbour’ for me; and I was returning as a guest tutor for Skyros: flight, accommodation, food and expenses included. How my fortunes have changed! Yet this time, I wasn’t on holiday or a journey of self-discovery – (Siddhartha and all that) it was effectively a business trip. I would be running my Life:Fiction course every day – two four-day stints, with one day off in the middle of the session. Since it was smack bang in the middle of OU term time I also had marking to do – groan! However much I was loathe to take ‘work’ with me, this was the only way I could negotiate this excursion. Online marking of term papers is pretty much the same, wherever in the world you do it – although being able to pop down to the tropical beach for a swim has its compensations!
On making landfall (toes sinking into warm white sand the texture of demerara sugar) our bags were carried up to our rooms by nimble Thai lads. We had a chance to freshen up before the first meal. The room was spotless and comfortable with good air conditioning – essential! I felt better after a shower and a change of clothes. There is something psychologically reassuring about unpacking. It is good to finally arrive. I was looking forward to exploring the island and getting to meet the participants properly…
We had a brief ‘briefing’ followed by a lovely welcoming meal provided by the sweet staff of Samed Cabana – the beach-side resort we had colonised for the duration (enriching the demographic of Swedish and Russian families – many of whom had brought their small children to this safe and picturesque island).
The schedule was bashed out in time for the official start of the programme the next morning – and my daily routine became as follows:
Sunrise meditation and swim
Breakfast on the beach
An hour of writing (working on folk tales)
Demos – the community meeting from 9am
Ecos – staff/participant groups
Then I was free (by 10am) to crack on with my marking – oh joy! I set myself a quota of a couple a day, which would allow me to plough through them within the 12 days.
Lunch on the beach was at 1.30pm
After lunch I usually chilled out on the beach with a book (or a MSS or screenplay…), going in for a swim when things got too hot.
Around 4pm I prepared for my class – browsing my notes over a cuppa.
5pm my writing workshop – held in the resort restaurant.
7pm – free time! Dinner with group, or a quiet one.
Optional evening activities included dancing and the final cabaret.

So, that is the shape of my day for a couple of weeks, with the odd variation. Hardly gruelling, though in the heat it was hard to do any marking or teaching – especially late in the afternoon when the natural tendency is to have a siesta, or a cold bottle of beer and a swim.

Highlights that followed include swimming under the full moon, the day out to the Turtle Sanctuary and the pilgrimage to the white Buddha … Watch this space for further dispatches from Fantasy Island!

Another Earth

One Night in Bangkok

Metropolis Now - Bangkok skyline from Sofitel, courtesy of Melissa

Between the 3-16 February I went to Thailand to run a writing class for Skyros – although forging their reputation on the eponymous island in the Aegean, they now run their famous holistic holidays in exotic locations around the world. When offered the opportunity to run my ‘Life:Fiction’ course on Koh Samed, in the Gulf of Thailand, I leapt at the chance. Although it was the middle of term time and clashed with St Valentine’s (which required some careful negotations!) it was one of those ‘Calls to Adventure’ that you only get once-in-a-lifetime, and so I embarked upon my Hero’s Journey. Whenever I go on long trips the words of Cavafy’s immortal poem always come to mind: ‘As you set out for Ithaka, hope you’re road be a long one, full of adventure, full of discovery…’ Well, it was certainly a long road … ! It was a bum-numbing fifteen hour flight to Bangkok (with a nightmarish transfer in Mumbai in the middle of the night – after nine hours in the air, Indian bureacracy is not what you need in the middle of the night…). Flying cattle-class on ‘Jet Airways India’ (Fly-Lo airlines came to mind, from ‘Come Fly With Me’) didn’t enhance my sense of well-being – but when being sucked through the sky at 500 miles an hour in a cramped metal tube, breathing recycled air and watching recycled movies, little might.
Arriving in Bangkok in the early hours, spaced out and sore, the plush comforts of the Sofitel on Silom Road helped the process of compensation – once I had got there. First there was a high-speed taxi ride along the flyover passed the biggest billboards in the world blocking out the sky. My affable taxi driver drove like the stunt-driver protagonist of Drive – the slick and ultra-violent inflight movie I watched on the way over, worryingly within reach of any youngster via their personal touch-screen TV. The skyscrapers soared above the slums of this massive city – one emblazoned with the legend ‘BMW is joy’ – each one seemingly outdoing the next in architectural extravagance or folly, while monorails threaded through them and tiny tuk tuks and street stalls co-existed at their feet, ants in a rainforest of giant hardwoods, like something out of Bladerunner or Brazil. The concierge took my bag up to my room on the 14th floor, which afforded vertiginous views over this South East Asian metropolis – the air con hit me like a wet towel. Snowy sheets on an emperor-sized bed pulled, like a White Hole. I succumbed to its point of singularity – Z-land. About eight hours later I awoke, somewhat groggily, having slept through most of the day. I showered and dressed, making my way to the 36th floor for the Skyros welcome meeting. Here I met fellow tutors and participants. We arranged to go for a meal together – one had been conveniently arranged at a tourist honeypot. Together, about a dozen of us hit the dirty noisy streets – in such of sustenance. As we dined we were treated to Thai dancing, courtesy to a couple of colourfully dressed ladyboys, with immaculate make-up and thick hairy legs! There followed some comic stick-dancing and a gamelan-style orchestra which some clearly experienced as a form of torture. All the performers looked deeply bored – like neurotic animals in a zoo. I hoped to experience something more authentic when we escaped Bangkok, but the sordid delights of Patpong awaited us. Our guides took us there and left us to – to find whatever ‘floated our boat’ presumably. Well, a couple of cans of beer from the 7-Eleven was all my jetlagged party animal could cope with. I took these back to the hotel and flopped out, watching the hilarious Fantastic Mr Fox – tickled to see Bath’s Little Theatre in the set at one point! Within the last 24 hours I had watched 3 and half movies – even for a movie buff like me, a bit of a binge. This perhaps enhanced my impression of the trip so far as being cinematic and surreal, (indeed, Ballardesque) from the Heathrow airport (trying to sleep in Costa coffee at 4am…) to the hotel – everything glamorously shallow – digitised surfaces, plasma facades, moving adverts, massive billboards, tablets and smartphones. Everyone sucking from the virtual teat, as though we don’t exist if we’re not online, without the world’s trivia at our fingertips. Facebook voyeurs. Wikipaedophiles.
It was with a sigh of relief we escaped Bangkok the next morning, taking a couple of vehicles to the coast – and then a boat over to the island paradise of Koh Samed.
Would the two and a half days of travelling be worth it?
Watch this space!

Elected Friends

Dymock Poets Dinner Party

6th October

Dymock Poets Dinner Party at Daisybank, 6 October 2011

Last night seven of us gathered at Daisybank to celebrate a special friendship. On the 6th October 1913, the poets Robert Frost and (then prose-writer) Edward Thomas met for the first time. I decided this was an auspicious anniversary to have the first read-thru of the screenplay I have co-written with ex-ITV news editor Terry James about the lives of the Dymock Poets (a mutual passion of ours – Terry wrote a play about Thomas and his wife thirty years ago). Having the initial flash of inspiration in Spring 2010 after a discussion with Terry about another project, we began work in earnest late last summer – I drafted the initial treatment while on Skyros, running my first Writers’ Lab course. This was an evocative place to work on it – being the ‘corner of a foreign field that is forever England’ (Rupert Brooke, one of the Dymocks, is buried there). Having the village in Gloucestershire where it all started on my doorstep helped to bring it alive also, and I’ve spent several weekends on writers’ retreat there – staying at a lovely place in Redmarley D’abitot, walking in the footsteps of Frost, Thomas et al along the Poets’ Walks in the area. Talks and walks organised by the Friends of the Dymock Poets also helped to stir the cauldron (most recently, last Saturday – with excellent talks about Marsh and the War Poets). The recent wave of media interest in Thomas was an uncanny coda to my own ‘Dymock Fever’ I’ve been experiencing this last year and a half (to the point I even moved to Gloucestershire last December).

Kevan Manwaring - co-screenwriter of the Dymock Poets story

I invited 6 people to my soiree – the dress code was ‘Edwardian/Georgian’ and everyone made a real effort. I provided a roast dinner and there were contributions of pears from Herefordshire (from David’s garden), home-made cake, Wisset’s Pink from Suffolk, and other tasties. After the meal we read out some of the Dymocks poems – beginning with ‘The Sun Used to Shine’ by Thomas, about the ‘walk-talking’ rambles he used to enjoy with Frost in and around Dymock.

Then we repaired to the ‘lounge’, where a fire was roaring – not for port and cigars – but for a read-thru of the screenplay. Roles were allocated and the casting seemed to be spot on as the respective thesps rose to the occasion – Jay carried off a good American accent for Frost; Anthony was perfect for Thomas; as his partner Kirsty was for Farjeon; Gabriel played Helen (& the barmaid!); Ola, Brooke; David, Marsh (& Bott). The other parts were played by ‘members of the cast’, as they say. I read out the scene descriptions and filled in where necessary. The dialogue flowed well and the group held the focus for over two hours – with no one breaking the spell for a loo break, etc. At times, with the fire crackling in the grate, the atmosphere was powerful. And once again I found the Dymock story deeply moving.

Afterwards, there was cake and crit – although some had to depart due to the lateness of the hour. Finally, the guests left (except Ola, the Bonn-Bath migrant, who had to crash over), and I went to bed feeling replete – a perfect night, made so by exceptional friends, all talented writers, storytellers and poets. The Dymock Poets story has such a pull for me, because I find the way those poets (their wives; close friends; & muses) inspired and supported each other very inspiring.

Here’s to creative fellowship!

Ola, Jay, Anthony & Gabriel - creative fellowship

The Magic of Skyros

Skyros 1-11 September

Sunset at Atsitsa

I returned to the gorgeous Aegean isle of Skyros on the first of the month for my second year of running a creative writing workshop – this time focussing on what I call ‘Life: Fiction’, my hybrid of life-writing and fiction-writing (where one ends and the other begins is often hard to say). I rode to Heathrow and parked up my ‘bike – before catching the BA flight to Athens. We were picked up by the distinctive purple Skyros coach, and guided to our hotel by Julian – the long-running member of staff, a skilled guide and consummate professional. Our brief stopover in the capital city was a chance to check out an attraction or two, as well as connect with fellow participants (& tutors). Before the respective parties went to either Skyros Centre (Writers’ Lab/Life Choices) or Atsitsa (various courses & activities) it was nice opportunity to forge a collective identity. We were all embarking on the adventure together. A group of 19 of us went out, looking for somewhere to dine – deciding to venture to the so-called ‘Anarchists’ Quarter’ to sample the local scene. The atmosphere seemed pleasant – with young black-clad Athenians hanging out, sporting long hair and lots of make-up (back home they’d be called ‘Emos’ or ‘Goths’). The food finally came – a barrage of starters, in true meze style. The cold bottle of Mythos went down a treat after a long journey, yet it wasn’t over yet. The following day, after a morning (which I used to visit the National Archaeological Museum) we set off – well, we would have done if not for the Student Protest which caused our street to the blocked off and the hotel barricaded up. We were stuck until they had passed, delaying the departure of the coach – but making for an interesting spectacle. The student protesters were far more civilised than their British equivalents – stamping and singing in good spirits. It felt ‘good-natured’ if earnest – they have true cause for complaint. The economic crash has hit Greece hard – there were a lot of beggars of the streets and lots of political graffiti everywhere, but I didn’t feel unsafe. However, there was a sense it was a powder-keg – and combined with the heat, noise and endless traffic – it was a distinct relief to leave the ugly metropolis. If nothing else, a night in Athens makes you appreciate the time on the island even more.

Graffiti in Athens

As soon as we reached the Aegean coast, things looked up. The ‘wine-dark’ sea (actually a dazzling turquoise at that time of day) was a sight for sore eyes; and soothing to the other senses also – to stand on deck of the ferry as it crossed over to Evia, feeling one’s body enveloped in a warm breeze – and then onto the Linaria from the other side. Due to the delay caused by the protest we nearly missed the last ferry – getting there with five minutes to spare. As we approached Skyros we were treated to a spectacular sunset. At the same time the maiden moon rose opposite. And it felt like we had slip through the Symplegades of reality and entered a realm of enchantment. This effect was somewhat challenged by the ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ music blasting out as we entered the port of Linaria (something of a tradition – which the residents must love!). By now, after twenty four hours of travelling I was feeling rather spaced out and very glad to finally arrive at the Skyros Centre for a late dinner. With relief we were shown to our quarters. Despite a dripping tap, I slept well, dog-tired.

Courses started the very next day – straight after the breakfast community meeting. For the next eight days (with one day off halfway through) I ran a three hour writing workshop every morning from 10.30am. My group of participants was small (6) but the international cross-section and striking personalities more than made up for it (an Australian; a South-African; a Belgian; an American-Asian; & a couple of Brits). The group seemed to bond well and produced some good work. Every afternoon, after a delicious lunch conjured up by Vasso, (the near-legendary local cook) I enjoyed a siesta down on the lovely beach at Magazia – swimming in the warm clear seas and cooling off with a beer and a book. Bliss.

Life's a Beach - on Skyros

One day, while I was running my writing workshop on the terrace a British couple turned up who had met at Skyros twenty five years ago – got married and were celebrating their anniversary on the island. They were invited to join us for lunch – and a cake magically manifested from Vasso’s kitchen.

Great massages were on offer from Martha – our resident native masseuse – and Andrea offered a ‘personal styling’ drop-in in the evenings. It’s half-board at Skyros, so most evenings the participants took themselves off to the town or the beach to dine – and most evenings they seemed to end up on the terrace of the apartment block where I was staying, enjoying a ‘nightcap’ or three – usually courtesy of Peter’s generosity (he kept regaling us with bottles of wine and whisky in an ongoing ‘tasting’ session).

Terrace party

The Dionysian revelry was not sustainable – and folk started to flounder after a few late nights. I had learnt to pace myself quickly – and enjoying a few quiet ones in allowed me to be clear-headed most mornings – essential for my class! If the late night drinking was avoided, the life-style at Skyros was in fact very healthy – great food, plenty of exercise, rest, sun and early morning yoga – so my body soon started to ‘glow’.

The excellent catering was occasionally supplemented by superb additions by the multi-talented Andrew – who co-runs the Skyros Centre with Julian. One morning he treated us to home-made bagels. And one evening a delicious curry for the staff (yum!).

Skyros Centre - all quiet for siesta time

Half-way through the session we visited the sister site at Atsitsa – a chance to swim off Dead Goat Beach, enjoy a drink at Mariana’s while watching the sunset, and catch up with our fellow travellers. The bold (or foolish) could try a bit of Greek dancing, although the ‘free-style’ to resident musician Tom’s drumming posse was more to my taste. Alas, taxis whisked us back to Skyros at eleven like a fleet of pumpkin coaches, yet the visit had provided a welcome ‘change of scene’. Both groups seem to decide that their place was best! In truth, both have their attractions – but a plus for Skyros is the experience of living ‘amongst the locals’ in traditional Greek dwellings, and so could be said to be a more authentic experience, culturally. You get to know the predominantly ancient locals, sitting on their porches, as you pass them everyday, calling out ‘Kalimera’ or ‘Yaisas!’

High Country - Skyros mountain walk

The day after was our official day off – making the most of the free morning I visited the local archaeological museum (its modest collection of local finds not quite matching the main one in Athens!) then went for a solo mountain walk after lunch with the Atsitsan guests. It was great to strike out alone – and enjoy some peace and space, after a few intense ‘people-rich’ days. I like good company – and my own! I need both to stay pleasant. The only company I had was a herd of wild goats – the sound of their bells is a familiar sound in the high country of Greece – and evokes an Arcadian idyll unchanged for centuries. One half expects Pan himself to step out from behind an olive tree, or to catch a nymph bathing in a sun-dappled pool (on the South Island, there is the Spring of the Nymphs below the Temple to Pan on a mountain top – amongst the tangled shade of a massive tree growing by the Spring goats gather, unwittingly conspiring in the mythic resonance of the place).

The magic of Skyros is palpable – in the vibrant colours; the air like warm honey; the golden evening light; in the vast star fields; the nocturnal chirrup of insects; the chiming of church bells in the distance; the heady scents of the night; the crowing of cockerels; the steady rhythms of work and prayer, siesta and socialising. At night the little cobbled streets of the town comes alive – young and old alike are safe until late. There appears to be no delinquency. Like the way the white ‘box’ houses hem each other into into a maze of passageways, so to does Greek society ‘hold’ everyone in place in a very community-focused way. It is a jigsaw puzzle of connections and consequences – a system that is both emotionally and physically ‘earthquake proof’ (when an earthquake hit the island – the monastery and castle were badly damaged, but the ‘sugar cube’ domestic buildings withstood it well).

Sunrise from the castle - Skyros

One morning I got up before dawn to watch the sun rise from Brooke Square – where a statue to the Dymock poet is dedicated (and to ‘classical poetry’). Last time I was here I visited his grave on the South Island (the actual ‘corner of a foreign field that is forever England’) and worked on a screenplay which is now starting to attract some exciting interest – I thanked the spirit of Brooke for any assistance he’s been giving!

I managed to do some light editing of a poetry manuscript – and a lot of reading – but after my class I was often too mentally tired to much other than blob out on the beach. Twenty four hours of teaching in 8 days is quite a lot (in effect, a 10 or 12 week course condensed into just over a week). But time and time again I was surprised and impressed by what participants shared. There was some good work created – and that is always the proof of the pudding. The final feedback was favourable too, and I ‘clocked off’ with some satisfaction. My work was accomplished. School was out.

My writers - on the terrace at the Skyros Centre

On the last night I hosted the centre’s ‘soiree’ – a chance for participants to share a party piece (song, poem, story, joke…) The ‘Skyros Singers’, coached by Kate Daniels, performed a choral world music song. Everyone seemed to pitch in something – either officially or unofficially! There was a great atmosphere and a lot of talent. My own offerings (a Greek myth and a smattering of poems) seemed to go down well. I closed with a Celtic blessing. Then Abba came on at full blast and everyone started to dance in a very silly manner – it was a hoot! There was a lovely sense of connection with everyone – tutors and participants all. Friendships had been forged; latent talents nurtured; new skills learnt; minds and hearts opened; and lifestyles changed or enhanced.

Hosting the soiree - on Skyros

The next morning we left at a civilised hour for the ferry (unlike the usual ‘stupid o’clock’). Again, this provided a nice chance to catch up with Atsitsans and ‘compare notes’. Everybody seemed to be glowing – the body language, expressions and tell-tale ‘twinkle’ said it all.

The magic of Skyros had worked once again!

words, words, words

31st January

Making the most of a precious window of opportunity (a window amidst the marking) I’ve been working flat out finishing off my screenplay this week  – and sent it off yesterday. Can’t say more than that!

I have other play projects in the pipeline as well…

My novel class on Tuesdays is going well – I look forward to resuming work on mine this May when I’m writer-in-resident at El Gouna, Egypt. Starting a raft of new classes for Wiltshire College from next week. Along with my work for the Open University and the Community Learning Service, I’m a busy bunny.

All work and no play can make Jack a dull boy, so this weekend I was determined to have some fun. Went to a fabulous event at the Chapel last night – Coco Boudoir. Since my friend Svanur has taken over running the venue it has really blossomed – and, by the looks of the place yesterday evening, has turned into the place to be  – full house, great atmosphere. There was a swish crowd there, dressed in their glad rags. Top hats and corsets. Outstanding!

Looking forward to the next Garden of Awen, next Sunday 7th Feb, Chapel Arts Centre, Bath, where I’ll be launching my new collection, The Immanent Moment. The theme is ‘The Thorny Rose’, love, and we have superb line-up including Matt Sage, singer-song-writer from Oxford; Bristol slam-winner Rosemary Dun; Wayland the Skald, mighty smith of words; Widsith & Deor, story theatre; Saravian, the girl with the voice from the other side; and Jack Dean, the new Bard of Bath.

Walking along the Kennet and Avon today, saw not snowdrops – but, can you believe it, daffodils!

Here’s to Spring – bring it on!

PS if you hungering for the sun as well, you might want to check out the Skyros blog – where I’ll be running writing workshops late summer http://theskyrosblog.blogspot.com/