Tag Archives: Slad

The Intoxication of Memory: Laurie Lee & Cider with Rosie

CiderWithRosie.jpg

Cider with Rosie, 1st Edition, 1959, Hogarth Press

Origins

Cider with Rosie by Stroud-born author Laurence Edward Alan ‘Laurie’ Lee (1914-1997) was published in 1959 by Hogarth Press, with illustrations by John Stanton Ward (who had previously worked on HE Bates’ The Darling Buds of May, 1958). Stanton Ward’s exquisite line drawings as as locked into our aesthetic experience of the book as John Tenniel’s classic illustrations for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (150th anniversary 1865-2015) and Through the Looking Glass. They evoke the organic life oozing from every page of the book; their unfinished lines suggestive of the impressionistic quality of Lee’s writing. Published as ‘Edge of Day: boyhood in the West of England’ in 1960 in the US, it took two years to write, and three drafts.  Becoming canonised as part of the national curriculum, it became known to countless school-children and has sold over 6 million copies worldwide. With the royalties Lee purchased Rose Cottage in his beloved Slad. It has been adapted for stage (initially by James Roose-Evans), radio (narrated by Kenneth Branagh) and screen (1971; 1998; 2015). Cider with Rosie was not its first title – earlier versions were called Cider with Poppy and Cider with Daisy. Although the eponymous ‘Rosie’ was later identified as Rosalind ‘Rose’ Buckland, Lee’s cousin by marriage, who died in 2014, a few days before her hundredth birthday) a perhaps telling detail (Laurie Lee liked his women; but also, the way Lee has shaped his memories to his purpose). This subjectivity is acknowledged by Lee is a Note preceding the text:

The book is a recollection of early boyhood, and some of the facts may be distorted by time.

From the writer’s own admissions and the analysis by Valerie Grove’s in her 2000 biography, (The Well-loved Stranger; republished as The Life and Loves of Laurie Lee in 2014) we can interpret ‘may be’ as ‘undoubtedly’ (distorted by the writer’s imagination).

Structurally the book is arranged into thirteen thematic sections:

  1. First Light
  2. First Names
  3. Village School
  4. The Kitchen
  5. Grannies in the Wainscot
  6. Public Death, Private Murder
  7. Mother
  8. Winter and Summer
  9. Sick Boy
  10. The Uncles
  11. Outings and Festivals
  12. First Bite at the Apple
  13. Last Days

There is a loose chronology about this sequencing, from his first arrival at their new home in Slad, aged three, to his loss of ‘innocence’ (First Bite …), to his ‘birth’ as a poet. The book is a self-penned creation myth, describing the evolution of the writer. A serious illness (Sick Boy) leads his awakening into ‘valley consciousness’, with the sensibilities of a poet. The book ends with him picking up the pen to start writing poems.

Published collectively as the ‘Red Sky at Sunrise’ trilogy along with As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning and A Moment of War. The title comes the saying: ‘Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight, Red sky at morning, shepherd’s warning’ which flags up the disenchantment at the heart of this cycle, from rural ‘innocence’ to war-torn ‘experience’. In this regard to trilogy could be regarded as a bildungsroman, charting Laurie Lee’s development from infant to adult, from boy to man.

Opinions          

Cider with Rosie is a supremely impressionistic memoir – one that draws upon ‘sense-memory’ more than verifiable fact. Lee himself said he wanted to evoke the genius loci, to capture what it felt like to live in his beloved Slad valley (a boy’s paradise, ‘scragging apples’), to chart it through the seasons, the turning of the wheel and the impact on village life of the modern and the ancient (BBC Laurie Lee’s Gloucestershire: the storyteller’s landscape). This work in particular, out of all of his works, is indivisible with place, with the past, and with his passions (food; women; nature). He was, in essence, a sensualist, in love with life.

Cider with Rosie has been criticised as a work of nostalgic romanticism, painting an overly-idealised picture of village life, a Cotswold Arcadia (yet within the book there is a sense of a ‘spell that is breaking’, via the legacy of the First World War and the inexorable creep of Modernism) but this is redeemed by both its ecological awareness, (the book is bursting with fecundity and decay, the living landscape a huge presence in the daily life of Slad-folk, even invading the Lee family household; in every chapter the natural world is never far away and is not always benign) and the second and third books in the trilogy, which show a deepening political awareness. In effect, Cider with Rosie represents a lost ‘Golden Age’, as does the first half of ‘As I Walked Out…’, but this is deconstructed by the onset of the Spanish Civil War, and its aftermath (charted in A Moment of War; and A Rose in Winter). Together, they depict a journey to knowledge, from the solipsistically provincial to the worldly and battle-worn. It begins at the end of the Great War, and concludes in the midst of another.

Despite this backdrop of realism, the trilogy (and, by extension Laurie Lee’s life) has the quality of a folk tale – telling of a young lad from a sleepy village who goes off to a magical kingdom, with only his fiddle, wit and luck, and brings back the (Spanish) sun to re-enchant a damp Gloucestershire valley. Lee had no small part in forging this legend, being prone to self-mythologising, and the deliberate obfuscation of the memoirist. By shaping his past, he prevented others from doing so (until after his death). In this he shared the fears of Hilary Mantel who, terrified, that others would misappropriate her past, took it upon herself to get there first.

 

As a child raised in a family of women (his father left home when he was 3) – his mother, 3 step-sisters (and 2 brothers, one Jack who went on to become a film director in Australia), his formative years were shaped by the feminine, colonised his imagination, and shaped his writing (and lifestyle) for the rest of his life. He had numerous ‘muses’ throughout his life, but the most important, by far, was the glamorous ‘society beauty’ Lorna Wishart. When she left him for the painter Lucien Freud (Laurie Lee developed a romantic attachment to her niece, Katherine, whom he went on to marry – they had went Laurie was 21, Kathy was 5: sitting on his knee, so his wife was to reveal, she knew in that moment she would marry him. When Kathy gave birth to their daughter Jesse (born on the same day as Lorna’s child by Lee, Yasmin – a long kept secret from the family), Lee sang the praises of his ‘first-born’, and later the ‘two women’ in his life – Kathy and the infant Jesse. He was renowned as a ‘charmer’, a ‘lady’s man’, who seemed to be more at ease amid female company, the prettier the better.

Laurie Lee was, as a poet and an artist, a lover of beauty. His depiction of his childhood in Slad, written over half a century later, is infused with these sensibilities. They transform the landscape through his artist’s (and lover’s) eye. As such, his project echoes the mood of a 1911 painting by the Russian-French artist Marc Chagall, ‘I and the Village’ – a dreamlike overlapping of internal and external landscapes, infused with the artist’s memories of his place of birth and his relationship to it. In both works (Cider with Rosie; and ‘I and the Village’ there is a sense of ‘village-consciousness’, or ‘valley-consciousness’ – a breaking down of Self and the Other, of the human and the natural world. (This is lucidly articulated in the chapter entitled ‘Sick Boy’ when the young Lee awakes from a fever with a heightened perception of his locality – we seem to eavesdrop upon the birth of the poet). This way of seeing is also echoed in Dziga Vertov’s docu-poem, Man with a Movie Camera (1929), which dances through the diurnal round of ordinary lives. As someone who worked on documentaries in the Second World War (for the GPO film unit), whose brother Jack became a film director, Laurie Lee would have been familiar with this cinematic language, if not this actual work. A recent exhibition of Lee’s paintings (Museum in the Park, 2014; and publication of his artwork) shows how important art was to him. Lee’s memoirs and poems are intensely visual and imagist. He paints with words. Sometimes the brush-work is loose, Turneresque, at others, he renders vivid miniatures of rural life (or perhaps field-sketches in the case of the Spanish books). It is contextually interesting to note that a contemporary of Laurie Lee, fellow poet Dylan Thomas (born in the same year, 1914), wrote his own impressionistic account of village life, in his case a fictionalised version of Laugharne, ‘Llareggub’, in his BBC ‘play for voices’, Under Milk Wood (1954) – preceding Cider with Rosie by 5 years. Both had worked on documentaries during WW2.

Cider with Rosie is a quintessential Post-War project, alongside Poet Laureate John Betjeman’s praise songs for lost England, broadcast to the nation in his popular TV monologues. It offers a healing of a traumatized England, the re-membering of a shattered nation-self. Amid the swagger and quiff of the 1950s, the Angry Young Men and kitchen-sink realism, Lee offered a Horlicks-ish comforting window onto the past. In mythologizing his own neck of the woods, Lee created a mythscape that would appeal to millions. His bucolic pastoral conjures an almost pre-lapsarian state. The very title, Cider with Rosie, is ripe with metaphorical freight, with mythic resonance. It intimates the irretrievability of innocence, alluding to the original apple (from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, partaken of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It is perhaps not surprising to note that in the surrounding Gloucestershire landscape are place-names plucked from the Bible and its imagery: Purgatory, Paradise, the Horns, the Heavens. The ‘First Bite of the Apple’ chapter in microcosm, the book in its entirety, and the trilogy in a wider sense, track a kind of rite-of-passage, in 3 stages:

  1. Temptation
  2. Transgression
  3. Transformation

This cycle would seem to play out through the rest of Lee’s life. He was forever trying to get back to the garden, whether through women, drink, living off of his own one-man heritage industry, or the numerous tourists who would come to pay homage. He was, for many years, amenable to sharing a tale or two over a pint in his local, The Woolpack. One of his favourite anecdotes was telling of a young visitor who asked him ‘where Laurie Lee was buried’. When he died in 1997 (13 May, aged 82), he was buried in Slad churchyard. His gravestone is engraved with a line from one of his most popular poems, ‘April Rise’:

If ever I saw

blessing in the air

I see it now in this

still early day

Where lemon-green

the vaporous

morning drips

wet sunlight on the

powder of my eye.

On the other side it reads: ‘He lies in the valley he loved.’

Legacy

Still loved by millions, Cider with Rosie has become, for the residents of Stroud and the Slad Valley, a kind a talisman, helping to ward off housing development several times. Lee himself was instrumental in this. When a development was planned in the 90s he wrote to all the national newspapers and fronted a campaign to stop the proposed housing scheme. Lee’s last public reading was at Stroud Town Hall, as part of an evening of local writers raising awareness about the campaign. As with Hardy’s Wessex, Dickens’ London, Jane Austen’s Bath Lee’s works have transformed how people ‘read’ his native landscape. It is almost impossible now to not visit Slad and to disassociate it from Lee. He is on the map. In 2014, the year of his centenary, a Laurie Lee Wood was created (opened by Cerys Matthews) and the Laurie Lee Wildlife Way was launched by the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, with a signposted trail leading visitors around his village and valley. Lee’s poems are printed on perspex, so you can literally ‘see’ the landscape through his words.   Up the road, at Sheepscombe, the picturesque cricket ground was purchased by Lee and given to the local cricket team. The view is preserved through the power of his literary legacy. In his centenary year further ‘landmarks’ were added, included a mural in the Shambles, Stroud centre, and an exhibition at the Museum in the Park. Every midwinter, local musician Johnny Coppin performs a popular concert of his music, which includes poems of Lee’s set to music. Coppin recorded an album of Lee reading extracts and poems set to music, entitled Edge of Day, a nod back to the American edition. Stroud-based poet, Adam Horovitz (son of Michael and Frances Horovitz) wrote a memoir about Lee, A Thousand Laurie Lees, published in 2014 by The History Press. Kevan Manwaring produced a map of literary Gloucestershire for the Cotswold Word Centre, featuring Laurie Lee and other well-known writers of the area (incl Edward Thomas, Ivor Gurney, Dennis Potter and others). Lee has become part of a local ‘pantheon’, and continues to draw literary pilgrims to the area and inspire the county’s vibrant writing community to this day.

Kevan Manwaring

Stroud 13 April 2015

Notes for ‘The Secret Life of Books: Cider with Rosie, presented by Joanne Trollope’

BBC4, 9 November 2015

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06nxssd

Laurie Lee – in his own words

Restarting after a summer break on 21 September, a weekly Sunday evening session is being held at the Woolpack, Slad – Laurie Lee’s local. This year we celebrate the Gloucestershire writer’s centenary (1914-1997) here in Stroud and the Five Valleys. There has been a rolling programme of events throughout the year. This initiative has been organised by local writers Richard Austin (who hosted) and Denis Gould of Letterhead Press.

At the first of the new season I joined fellow poet Jay Ramsay and Wiltshire songstress Chantelle Smith in the side-bar of the Woolpack, where we shared a personal selection of poems and prose from the great man. Jay’s readings were themed on ‘peace’ and ‘war’ and I offered a selection based upon the wildlife of Slad Valley, War, and Autumn, intermingling the poetry with prose extracts from Cider with Rosie. Chantelle finished off with a lovely set of theme-related songs. There was a good attentive crowd there, and the atmosphere was relaxed and pleasant. Look at for these free (!) local spoken word events, every Sunday at the Woolpack until Christmas.

http://www.laurielee.org.

Midsummer Glory

 

Kevan at Avebury stone circle, Solstice Eve, by Chantelle Smith

Kevan at Avebury stone circle, Solstice Eve, by Chantelle Smith

It was an epic solstice weekend which began with me riding on my Triumph Legend motorbike down to Avebury, picking up my partner on the way for a solstice eve picnic on the banks of the mighty henge. Avebury is the largest stone circle in Britain and for my money the most magnificent. Many folk gathered here for the solstice sunrise (but nowhere near the insane numbers of Stonehenge) but it was peaceful enough to enjoy a pleasant picnic in the early evening sunlight. In the distance the obligatory drumming circle had started; and behind us a cricket match was just finishing. You could almost hear the land hold its breath in anticipation of the longest day of the year. For once, it truly felt like summer, and what a glorious place England is to be at such times – the golden green of the rolling hills and trees, the white of the chalk downs and the cricketers, the trilithons of Stonehenge and the cricket stumps, the strawberries and cream, cheese and cider, summer frocks and druid robes.

After I bid farewell to my companion I jumped on a train to London where I was scheduled to pick up a coach-load of sun-worshippers – to take to Stonehenge for the summer solstice sunrise. This meant a 12.30am departure, arriving in the carpark at 3am. It was surreal experience – with me having to articulate about neolithic archaeology in the middle of the night. Still, we got ’em there and we all witnessed the most spectacular sunrise I’ve seen at a stone circle for many years – the full orb rising over the Heel Stone. Truly awesome. A moment that is bigger than all of us (even the 37,000 at Stonehenge) putting everything in perspective. Whatever our faith, or lack of it, we can all worship the sun.

The sun rises over the Heel Stone, Stonehenge, 21 June 2014

The sun rises over the Heel Stone, Stonehenge, 21 June 2014

Bumping into friends at Stonehenge, by the Heel Stone just before sunrise, 21 June 2014

Bumping into friends at Stonehenge, by the Heel Stone just before sunrise, 21 June 2014

The crowds at Stonehenge Summer Solstice sunrise 21 June 2014

The crowds at Stonehenge Summer Solstice sunrise 21 June 2014

After I had dropped off my neolithic pilgrims back in London I jumped on a train to Swindon, where I met my partner for a solstice coffee (the actual solstice was at 10.51am), before heading north to Northampton (my birth town), some 70 miles up the road. There, in the grounds of my beloved Delapre Abbey (where I used to walk my dog as a kid) I snoozed on the lawn until my sister and wee bairn turned up. We enjoyed a cuppa and a cake, while we caught up. I ran through my stories in the glade, fighting off the fatigue. I felt a 1000 years old and could have turned into a tree myself at that point! I reminded myself that the solstice means the ‘sun’s stillness’ and savoured this all too brief hiatus from the heat and dust of the road.

Glade to be alive. Kevan in Delapre Abbey, 21 June 2014

Chillin before the gig. Kevan in Delapre Abbey, 21 June 2014

Then it was off to Rockingham Village Hall, near Corby, for a one-hour storytelling gig. This was a fundraiser for the lovely village hall, and was organised by big-hearted Jim. I was made most welcome by him and his wife in their very picturesque thatched cottage. Jim is an old-school biker himself and showed me the awesome chopper he had built in his garden shed. It was a serious mean machine. I freshened up – somewhat flagging considering I hadn’t had any sleep for 36 hours! This seemed to do the trick as I performed my set without any gaffs. It seemed to go down well, going by the feedback (‘once again many thx for the great stories ,  you have made an impression up  here !!’).

Sadly I wasn’t able to stick around afterwards to enjoy the beer and ceilidh band – I had to get back, even though it meant a 3 hr slog late at night – for my final booking the next morning… And so I said a fond farewell to Jim and his Scottish crew – until next time!

Bard on a Bike and meinhost, Jim of Rockingham, 21 June 2014

Bard on a Bike and meinhost, Jim of Rockingham, 21 June 2014

Although I was exhausted and chilled by the time I made it back at 1am I was glad to be able to flop out in my own bed (41 hrs without proper sleep!). I had 7 blissful hours before I had to get up and get ready to lead a 3 hr literary ramble with 17 people from Hawkwood College – no rest for the bardic!  The weather was glorious as we set off for Slad – and the rest is related in my previous post (‘Walking with Laurie’). By the time I was able to slump down in the garden at Rosebank Cottage with a Pimms, to listen to the poetry and fiddle, I felt as old as the hills, but at one with the land.

The summer solstice is the most expansive, joyous time of year – the time of maximum daylight (and sunlight if we’re lucky) and energy in the northern hemisphere. It feels possible to have such (relatively) epic adventures – because the engine of the year is behind us, the vast CCs of the sun, the ultimate hot-rod, cruising through the cosmos – the Lord of Light in his leathers and shades, long -hair flowing and Hendrix on the headphones, blasting across our skies.

Stone Temple Biker - Kevan at Avebury, by Saravian

Stone Temple Biker – Kevan at Avebury, by Saravian

Walking with Laurie

John Lee reads out an extract of 'Cider with Rosie' by Rose Cottage, Slad, 22 June 2014

Anthea Lee reads out an extract of ‘Cider with Rosie’ by Rose Cottage, Slad, 22 June 2014

I rounded off a glorious solstice weekend (which began with watching the sunrise over Stonehenge with 37,000 people!) by taking a group of 17 walking in the footsteps of Laurie Lee – one of the series of ‘Walking with Words’ literary rambles I’ve organised for Hawkwood College.

The weather was glorious as we wended our way up the Slad valley to the start point, overlooking Rose Cottage (which Laurie Lee purchased with royalties from ‘Cider with Rosie’). We had a lovely group – including 3 cousins of the great man himself, which was very special. I encouraged them to chip in with any info, and to take turns (alongside the rest of the group) reading out extracts of the book.

Along the way we bumped into some of then newly-installed poetry posts, which we also recited from  – they’re beautifully-designed and a great initiative from the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, who have created a Wildlife Way around the poet’s beloved Slad Valley. You see the landscape through his words (literally, as they are printed on perspex) – and thus you gain an insight into his world and a deeper appreciation of the natural environment. Writing can change our perception of places – and it certainly does here, enriching it enormously. Psychogeography seems a fancy, urbanish word for such a bucolic idyll as we experienced that day – but there is an element of that in the way we interfaced with the many facets: ecology, local history, literature, social history, etc.

We paid our respects at the lovely gravestone ( the man himself said: ‘I want to be buried between the pub and the church, so that I can balance the secular and the spiritual’, from Valerie Grove’s biography, p510) and then I showed the group the memorial window inside. There is an art exhibition on – and invigilating it was James Witchall, who designed the windows, another moment of serendipity! He happily told us about the commission and design. The church was beautifully decorated with flowers – it was lovely to see it brimming with art and nature, and visitors. I finished the walk outside the Woolpack, with the final section of the book, and then some of us went back to Hawkwood for a delicious lunch.

A Slad Century - performed by Adam Horovitz and Becky Dellow outside Rosebank Cottage, Slad, 22 June 2014

A Slad Century – performed by Adam Horovitz and Becky Dellow outside Rosebank Cottage, Slad, 22 June 2014

That would have made a perfect day by itself, but then I went back to Slad to explore the exhibition a bit more, and then make my way to Rosebank Cottage (Laurie Lee’s childhood home) for a poetry and music perform – A Slad Century with Adam Horovitz and Becky Dallow. It was very special to be in the well-tended garden of this famous domicile, sitting on the lawn sipping Pimms in ‘poets corner’ along with other Stroud bards: Denis Gould, Rick Vick and Richard Austin. Listening to Adam and Becky I slipped into a blissful reverie. I felt I oozed into the soil and became one with the Slad Valley, curled up in its arms like an ammonite. After an epic weekend (overnight Stonehenge tour; one hour storytelling performance in Rockingham Village Hall; over 300 miles of travel – many on the motorbike) I was exhausted but content. Laurie Lee’s writing does (largely) evoke a nostalgic, bucolic idyll – but sitting in the sun in Rosebank Cottage, enjoying poetry, fiddle, a drink and good company, I do not think that is a bad thing. Such experiences feed the soul and make life on this beautiful, blighted world a lot more bearable.

Afterwards, we decamped to The Woolpack where we ensconced ourselves in Laurie Lee’s ‘corner’. Amongst the company of fellow poets, (who all carry the torch past on by Lee and other great Gloucestershire writers) I felt a warm sense of belonging to this precious corner of the Cotswolds.

To finish with the words of Cotswold Ballads poet, Frank Mansell, who was helped into print by his friend Laurie Lee. In thanking his fellow poet, Frank wrote:

‘What we are really doing is creating a legend, leaving a landmark, a sarsen stone to show we passed this way’.

 

The summer solstice sun rises over the Heel Stone, Stonehenge, 21 June 2014, by Kevan Manwaring

The summer solstice sun rises over the Heel Stone, Stonehenge, 21 June 2014, by Kevan Manwaring

(***on 22 July, I am running a 1-day writing workshop at Hawkwood College on Landscape, Memory and the Imagination***)

Many more events celebrating the Laurie Lee Centenary can be found here.

Gadzooks!

Thirsty knights refreshing themselves at Tewkesbury Medieval Festival

Gadzooks!

11th July

Early on Sunday I made my way northwards along the Cotswold Edge to the Tewkesbury Medieval Festival, now in its 27th year. I had been meaning to go for a number of years, hearing good things about it – what, I couldn’t quite say, but there was a general consensus it was ‘a good one’. It had started, in the words of the introduction to this year’s programme:’an idea thought up over a pint by some of the ‘Companions of the Black Bear’…’

at the sign of the glove...

I raced through the sunshine to be there in time for the opening ceremony performed by druid friends, including Elaine and Greywolf. Apparently, they had a countdown for me to arrive. I might have made it if not for the army maidens demanding a parking fee at the entrance – and me clumsily dropping my gloves several times. I parked up by a mobile home and raced in, over the tilting field and over the little wooden bridge that provides a threshold into the festival’s medieval timewarp. They said to meet my by the beer tent – typical druids. I saw a suspicious looking circle in the distance and headed towards them. Sure enough, the druids were in a circle outside the Drunken Monk Inn. I arrived and joined them just as they chanted ‘And may peace prevail throughout the whole world!’ They finished casting the circle with air – in the form of Greywolf’s flute; fire – with incense; and water – scattered before us. I pulled on my bardic cloak. Phew – I had made it! Elaine asked people to speak on behalf of whomever they wished to. Immediately, the PA kicked in, which made everyone laugh. The ceremony was good-humoured, especially with Greywolf’s light touch, and such disturbances didn’t derail things (indeed the success of any good ceremony is about being full present in the moment and opening to all). Heartfelt words were said about those fallen at the Battle of Tewkesbury – one of the decisive battles of the War of the Roses – that took place on the site, on 4th May, 1471.

Death waits in the wings - at Bloody Meadow, Tewkesbury

Around two thousand five hundred souls met their end that day – on what became known as the Bloody Meadow – more than the two thousand re-enactors that would recreate the battle later in the main arena. Fortunately, the festival was a far more peaceful affair, even though many of the stalls sold armour and weaponry. Strange how so much creativity and culture has thrived off the back of a slaughter. Warfare seems a peculiar thing to celebrate – but for many I imagine it just a chance to escape from the mundanity of their daily lives with a bit of dressing up and role-playing. Yet some take it very seriously – the cost of the costumes and equipment isn’t cheap. I wonder what draws people to certain periods – why do people re-enact? Is it a past life thing? a way of connecting with and honouring ancestors? or a form of OCD (as my friend Jay suggested later when we discussed it over a pint in the Woolpack in Slad, Laurie Lee’s local in the Five Valleys near Stroud)? It is easy to mock the likes of the ‘Sealed Knutters’ (members of the Sealed Knot Civil War re-enactment society, The Sealed Knot). I used to know one in Northampton who was a bona fide eccentric clearly born in the wrong century – a complete obsessive, with tankards and armour cluttering up his bedsit in a tower block – his great-great… grandfather had fought in the battle of Naseby and he still took it personally. But I can see how it gives those who participate a sense of tribe, of community.

Simple life - Tewkesbury Medieval Festival

A reassuring idyll where everyone has a clearly defined role, and life is simplified to a village green arcadia – with all your needs met by individuals like the blacksmith, the baker, the brewer, etc. It is healthily low-tech but highly skilled – craftsmanship is highly prized. Things aren’t mass-produced by hand-made, often bespoke. When I had a chance to wander around the market – rows of stalls (offering a wonderful assortment of medieval wares and skills including alchemy; leech-craft; clayware for daily use; beautiful things in leather, velvet, ring mail; shiny feudal bling; wimples and snoods, doublet and hoseries, and the like) I was impressed by the sheer creativity and craft. It also occurred to me that alot of this is Peak Oil proof – and might be a glimpse of how society could be in the future (as imagined by Richard Jefferies in his post-apocalyptic novel, ‘After London’). However, I can imagine it not being so picturesque and bucolic.

bucolic charm - minstrels at Tewkesbury Medieval Festival

Folk lolled about in the sweltering sun (one of the hottest days of the year), enjoying a flagon of cider while watching ‘knight combat’ or listening to a band of prancing loons in the beer tent. There were a couple of guys were ‘pet dragons’ on their arms – but these were trumped by a man with a python wrapped around his neck, which he was letting small children stroke. I had to have a go as well. ‘Some pythons can be mean, but he likes people’, the owner reassured. There were lots of panting dogs around, tongues lolling (imagine sweating through your tongue – and then giving someone a sloppy kiss – eeeuww) including several large, shaggy wolf-like varieties. One husky pulled a small boy along in a cart – ‘it’ll all end in tears’, I said, seeing it running along. Next thing, it jack-knifed on a tussock, throwing the boy out. Fortunately he wasn’t hurt – indeed, seemed to enjoy the experience. Health and Safety seemed marvellously absent from the whole affair – although St John’s paramedics were there in force, especially for the final battle – where there services were required after one particularly rough skirmish resulted in an ambulance arriving. I watched an archery demonstration – just for a chance to lie back on a grassy bank in the sun. Far more impressive was the archery-on-horseback demo later, where Korean-style horsemanship/archery was shown in dramatic fashion by three folk dressed up like Mongols.

Battle of Tewkesbury

The grand finale was spectacular – two thousands re-enactors marching onto the field of battle in all their armour and colours, waving their banners, shouting insults at the opposition. The crowds were encouraged to join in with this good-humoured ribbing. I ended up on the Yorkist side – not by choice, by chance – so I suddenly found myself a Royalist for the first time in my life. When the King and the Young Pretender finally met for parlez in the middle of the field, there was a certain frisson about the whole thing – enhanced by the commentary from the PA tower. It reminded me, visually, of Arthur and Mordred at the  fatal Battle of Camlan – it seems this ‘script’ has been played out through time. The young will always try to overthrow the old and perhaps that’s healthy, as one generation must make way for the next.

a brutal battle for survival - medieval warfare

Yet there is something Darwinian and brutal about how the upstart, eager to prove himself, will try his luck against the established pro with his reputation (like an old stag – the alpha male – with his hinds, having to defend himself against a young rival). The battle slowly got under way – large armies don’t move fast: an unwieldly behemoth, once it gets lumbering in one direction, it’s almost impossible to stop. The chain of consequences led to the inevitable endgame, the slaughter of Bloody Meadow – men bashing the crap out of each other, rather than talking it out (a display of relentless stupidity – all violence is an insult to evolution, to the sacredness of life – I witnessed in microcosm with my friend later, as we sat on a bench in the churchyard where Laurie Lee is buried, opposite his favourite local, The Woolpack in Slad. A booze-fuelled altercation broke out, complete with screaming girlfriends, shattering the peace of a quiet Cotswold village on a Sunday afternoon). After watching about an hour of the ‘carnage’ – albeit with the Tewkesbury miracle of battlefield resurrection – swathes of arrows darkening the skies, the report of cannon and rifle fire, the shouts of men – I grew weary of it all. It’s sad that so much energy and talent is put into recreating death and destruction rather than the arts of peace. I’d had enough – it had been a full on weekend and I needed to rest, but there was still the ride home, via Stroud, where I met up with my dear friend Jay, for a heart-to-heart over a pint. We do not need to use our fists. We can be better than that. Jay shouted over to the brawling boozers ‘Stupid! Stupid!’ and there is something Neantherdal about such behaviour. Yet, despite such reflections, it had been a worthwhile endeavour – the medieval festival in Tewkesbury is worth seeing. It makes for a colourful and interesting day out. It certainly brings history alive, which has got to be a good thing (for if we learn from the past there’s a chance we don’t make the same mistakes). We can take the best of it – the value of craftsmanship, of ‘human scale’ social structure and interaction, of etiquette, of community-belonging – and leave the rest.