Tag Archives: writing

Flights of Fancy

To date I have written 13 novels over the course of my writing life. It is interesting to look back and consider this harvest of the imagination

The amazing covers by Steve Hambidge for The Windsmith Elegy (vols 1-5) https://www.behance.net/crookedkm/projects

Flights of Fancy: My Novels

To date I have written 13 novels over the course of my writing life. It is interesting to look back and consider this harvest of the imagination – what connects them, if anything? Certainly a strong strain of the Fantastic – most are explicitly within the Fantasy or Science Fiction category, with just a couple of anomalies: my first novel, which could be categorised as Weird or Timeslip; and my latest, which is my most ‘mimetic’ to date – being set entirely in this world, with no element of the Fantastic (except perhaps through the combination of extraordinary characters in an extraordinary place – albeit both within the purview of the possible). From the very first a strong sense of place has been a key element of my fiction. I am also inspired by myths, legends, folk tales, and folk songs, so what I call ‘mythic resonance’ permeates all my work (indeed, I called my Fantasy novels ‘Mythic Reality’). Nature has always been more than a backdrop in my writing – an ecoliteracy informs them all. And increasingly, there is a keen sense of the Climate Emergency – this has manifested most tangibly in Black Box and Thunder Road. Finally, I think I am drawn to hybrid, marginalised voices – characters caught between worlds in different ways. These are the voices that interest me the most.

So far, only 8 have been published (one as an interactive novel), although my SF novel, Black Box, has manifested as an audio drama via Alternative Stories and Fake Realities. Hopefully, the others will see the light of day at some point. Otherwise, to keep writing them without guarantee of publication is a kind of madness – I call it my Obsessive Narrative Disorder. I just can’t stop writing. I have so many ideas, and novels just pounce on me and don’t let me go until I’ve written them. With my current novel, The Bath Circulating Library Society, I have set up what I hope to be a long-running series – I have several plot ideas already sketched out, enough probably to keep me busy until the end of my days. Let’s hope I get a publisher for them soon!

The Ghost Tree (1994 – unpublished)

The Long Woman (2004, Awen) – Arts Council Award winner

Windsmith (2006, Awen)

The Sun Miners (2007, Awen)

The Well Under the Sea (2008, Awen)

The Burning Path (2010, Awen) – El Gouna Writing Residency, Egypt

This Fearful Tempest (2012, Awen)

Black Box (2016) – winner of the One Giant Write competition run by Literature Works; adapted into an audio drama for Alternative Stories and Fake Realities.

The Knowing: a Fantasy (2018) – my PhD novel, published by the University of Leicester, via Open Access, as a hardbound dissertation, and website: www.thesecretcommonwealth.com (2nd draft written as a writer-in-resident at Hawthornden International Writers Retreat, December 2015).

Thunder Road (2020) available to read via this website

Hyperion (2021, available via Tales Writer on App Store and Google Play)

The Bath Circulating Library Society (2021) – long-listed for the Bath Novel Award

The Bath Circulating Library Society is a prequel to an intended novel series, the first volume of which has been written (completed in 2020).

Kevan Manwaring, 17 October 2021

The Characters are in Charge

cute-girl-guitar-music-play-sing-favim-com-67443_large

One day a tall red-head with striking eyes and a steel string guitar walked into my head. Her name was Janey McEttrick and she demanded to have her story told. She lived in an airstream trailer in the backcountry near Asheville, North Carolina. She was of Scottish descent (on her mother’s side) and had inherited more than just the red hair from her Celtic ancestors. The gleam in her eye suggested she knew more than her hedonistic ‘trailer-trash’ lifestyle suggested – far more.

When a character barges into your imagination like this you know you have no choice but to listen, to take notes, to do what you’re told. They are a gift. If a character is rebellious, subverting your carefully structured plot and all the nice plans you’ve laid out for them, then you know they have a pulse. It has been said that a novel is a war between characters versus plot. In that tension the narrative is forged. Too much of either and you’ll either end up with a rambling, indulgent mess – a series of character studies in search of a story;  or a soul-less checklist of plot-points populated with flat characters.

But I have often found that characters appear first and generate story. If they have a strong line of desire, hampered by doubts, fears and other attendant demons, then you can pretty much set them off and see where they take you. The parameters of your story world are usually limited by what you’re interested in, can be bothered to research, to ‘fill in’. The further away from that locus of interest, the hazier it becomes. The edges of that world are often unconvincingly blurry. Your writer’s imagination is unable to render it in sufficient detail. The character runs into a blank wall.

So, your protagonist – the one that gatecrashed your head (it’s normally them I find who are the culprits, rather than the minor characters) needs to meet other characters, to come alive, to be challenged, tempted, tormented, helped and harried. If you have a ‘mouthpiece’ characters that represents your world-view, then you need others who diametrically oppose and challenge that paradigm; you need foils; you need allies and enemies. Your protagonist needs friends, perhaps a lover or companion, and some kind of family. Suddenly your novel is starting to look crowded. Your lovely writer’s mansion has been squatted by a colourful rabble , who throw parties at all hours, graffiti the walls, and do unspeakable things with your objet d’art and upholstery. At some point you will have to put your foot down and put your house in order. The ‘creative’ mess will need tidying up, but it’s often only from that fecund chaos that the good stuff emerges. Too much control too soon can be fatal. Writers who impose martial law on their imagination – making characters toe the line – will create arid scenes empty of organic warmth. A little bit of anarchy is good for a story, if you want it to surprise and delight you. And if it doesn’t surprise and delight you, it’s unlikely to do that for the reader.

Where these characters come from is often a mysterious process – some kind of alchemy perhaps between people you know, people you wish you knew or had known, parts of yourself, the wunderkammer of your memories, your subconscious, your higher self, shadow, ancestors – even ones you’re not aware of… smushed with books, movies, music, art, places, people-watching, day-dreams and fantasies. Unless you’re doing a Creative Writing course of some kind, you normally don’t have to do an autopsy. All that matters is they live and breathe, that they speak and act, feel and think in accordance with their character – that’s the prime directive for any novelist. Yes, you can play God – but once you’ve created your world, don’t be a Jehovah. Let your characters get on with their lives. You have to let them make mistakes, fuck up, get themselves up the spout or bumped off. They need to learn in the school of hard knocks you’ve created for them – even if at times you wish you could give them a message, a helpful hint. But even if you do, most would ignore it or notice it. It is enough of a miracle that they exist at all. And we pass by signs and wonders every day.

 

The Knowing by Kevan Manwaring is published as an e-book on 20th March. If you would like to reserve a copy or review it, please get in touch.

Summoning the Hero

The Writer’s Quest, part 2

Enter the Hero - Beowulf steps up to the role

Enter the Hero – Beowulf steps up to the role

At this time, Beowulf, nephew of the Geatish king Hygelac, is the greatest hero in the world. He lives in Geatland, a realm not far from Denmark, in what is now southern Sweden. When Beowulf hears tales of the destruction wrought by Grendel, he decides to travel to the land of the Danes and help Hrothgar defeat the demon. He voyages across the sea with fourteen of his bravest warriors until he reaches Hrothgar’s kingdom.

Every creative act is an act of courage – it is ‘yah-boo-sucks!’ to death, to oblivion, to mediocrity, to being a passive consumer of life. We have everything against us – common sense; the pressure of earning a living; unhelpful peers; inner critics; crazymakers; noisy neighbours; that household chore that really needs your attention; that cold call; Climate Chaos; global financial meltdown; random asteroids and super volcanoes threatening to Destroy The World in an instant! See these as threshold guardians – they are the equivalent of the three-headed dog Cerberus that guarded the entrance to the realm of Hades. They are there to test your mettle, your tenacity. How much do you want to follow your dreams? Is your Push bigger than your Pull? Hollywood screenwriters use the useful idea of the ‘Fear/Desire Axis’ – which, despite its name is not some terrorist cell, or Bond-like super-baddy organisation. Basically, the actions of every character (and, possibly, every human being) is governed by the principle. Imagine it like a see-saw, with Fear at one end, Desire at the other. When a character’s desire outweighs their fear, they move forward. When that mean old bully fear tips the balance, they freeze or retreat. The locus of optimum dramatic tension is the tipping point between the two – the trick is to sustain this as long as possible. Shakespeare kept Hamlet stewing in his own juices for five acts, prevaricating, unable to act. This was the Prince of Denmark’s fatal flaw – he oscillated between ‘to be or not to be’, like some dodgy alternator. If he had killed Claudius in Act One, Scene One – end of story. Instead, Shakespeare wisely spun it out and elicited powerful drama from the psychological anguish experienced by the Dane at his tipping point, creating early Nordic noir.

`Yet, finally, the Hero must act – whatever the consequences. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Sam reach the uninviting entrance to Shelob’s Lair, reeking of carrion, plot snags and foul things. Neither of them are keen to enter – but they have a mission, to take the One Ring to Mount Doom and destroy it. This ‘desire’ outweighs their ‘fear’ and, steeling themselves (Frodo, with Sting) they step into the dark. This makes them heroes. Of course, if they had thought – ‘sod this for a game of soldiers’, and gone back to the Shire, they wouldn’t have been (and they wouldn’t have found much of a Shire to go back to). Novelist John Cowper Powys talked about how a character’s behaviour is governed by a ‘concatenation of imperatives’161 – incrementally, things build up (like ounce weights on the scales) until the protagonists simply have no choice (or so it would seem to them), or if they do, it’s a Hobson’s Choice – a choice which is really no choice at all.

And so into the darkness the plucky hobbits step – with their magic sword in one hand, and the Light of Elendil in the other. And so must we, as writers – armed with only a pen (or keyboard) and the frail light of our inspiration. In the Welsh legend of the bard Taliesin, Gwion Bach is reborn shining with awen (inspiration), stolen from Ceridwen’s cauldron – ‘Behold the radiant brow!’ cries the weir-ward when he is rediscovered, a helpless babe in a coracle. Consumed by our ‘illumination’ we venture into the Perilous Realm, like Wandering Aengus in WB Yeats’ classic poem: ‘I went for a walk in a hazel wood because a fire was in my head…’

Setting off on the Writer’s Quest of the creative process is perhaps akin to being a knight in a medieval romance, venturing into the forest (although we are probably more like Parsifal at this stage – the Holy Fool – more than the accomplished Paladin). Be prepared to make a fool of yourself, turning up at Court on a donkey in a patchwork costume. Let yourself make mistakes – give yourself permission – because so much success comes from creative ‘failure’, from trial and error and happy accidents. Embark in the spirit of creative play – and you will be more likely to create something original. Start thinking that you ‘know it all’, that you have the answers, and you will have nothing to learn (and readers will probably be less inclined to listen). Start your quest with questions – and your journey will be a journey of discovery, fuelled by curiosity and delight, some of the essentials for a writer.

10 Essentials for a Writer

  • Pen. Paper. A lack of excuses.
  • Curiosity & Delight.
  • A willingness to say ‘yes’ to life/a rebuttal of the ‘no’s’.
  • Ability to rewrite and listen to feedback.
  • Staying power (an internal composition engine).
  • An appetite for adventure.
  • Risk-taking.
  • Boldness.
  • Humour.
  • A healthy book habit.

Gawain had a pentagram on his shield to remind him of the ‘five Christian virtues’. In Scotland, at the Castle of the Muses, I met a South-African ‘knight’ called David told me of the essential chivalrous qualities as he sees them. A knight has:

  • the wisdom to do what is right
  • the will to make it happen
  • and the strength to make it endure.

And he suggested the three traits of a warrior are: impeccability, unpredictability, and responsibility. These latter qualities could certainly apply to a writer: impeccability in terms of being conscientious of one’s craft, attending to the details, keeping one’s house in order; unpredictability, in terms of originality of thought, ideas and execution; and responsibility, in terms of what you write, what you choose to bring into the world. These are the qualities we need to summon in ourself as we heed the call to adventure and set off to face our foe. In essence, the Hero is our Higher Self – and writing can help us connect to it (as well as to our Lower Self, our Shadow).

I call these the Avatarian and Atavistic Impulses.

Basically, writing can bring out the best and the worst in us – both in its execution and on the page. Writers can be beasts and saints, charismatic or tedious bores. Good to be around, or the partner/friend from Hell. Selfless, or selfish. Certainly there is an element of selfishness in writing – in indulging in one’s fantasies, as well as in the single-mindedness needed to see a project through to completion; and yet one could argue that in spending precious years slaving away at a manuscript that might have an altruistic element (the edification of humanity!) we are being selfless to a certain extent (although in reality the act of writing is probably a blending of the -less and the -ish!). On the page, the Avatarian and Atavistic Impulses can manifest in the form of characters – we can personify them.

It could be argued that all characters are aspects of the author’s personality (for where else do they come from? who else is writing it?). The Hero and Villain of a tale could be seen as the Higher and Lower Self of the author, although this is perhaps a crude analysis and things are often more nuanced than that. Villains often ‘act out’ our Super-Egos (over-confident, slick, successful, sexually magnetic, etc); and Heroes can often be dysfunctional and even amoral. Martin Amis said that ‘novels come from the base of the spine’ – echoing Nabokov’s ‘tell-tale tingle down the spine’162 – in the way that they explore powerful primal issues around security and identity. They can be an instinctual response to the world, almost beyond cognition – hence the mystery around the creative process, and where authors get their ideas from. Often, we can’t say for certain – until afterwards. The first draft is often written ‘in the dark’ – in the process of unknowing, of seeking, or being ‘driven’ – and the second with the ‘lights on’. The ‘scary thing in the shadows’ disturbs our status quo and forces us to give it voice, and then we ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ (or the stench of blood) and go in all guns blazing. First, Grendel; then Beowulf.

Of Beowulf, the bards sang:

And many men stated that south or north,

Over all the world, or between the seas,

Or under the heaven, no hero was greater.’163

When we summon the Hero we are, in a way, evoking our better qualities – our unrealised potential – and giving them a form. There is often an element of wish-fulfilment, of power-fantasy (think of James Bond; Sherlock Holmes; Jason Bourne, etc). The Hero can carry for us all the things we wish we could do or be if only… By writing, we literally tap into these and give them dramatic form; and in the process, we inhabit these qualities. By channelling the archetype, for a while we become it. And this is part of the visceral (as well as intellectual) thrill of writing which is rarely discussed. The adrenalin rush of writing can be intoxicating and … addictive. ‘I feel gripped by something stronger than my will,’ is how Alice W. Flaherty describes it.164

That is why, I believe, writing is the ‘best of me’ (as I tap into my Higher Self) and also when I often feel most fully alive (it can be exhilarating). When I am firing on all cylinders, the writer is a turbo-charged version of myself – I feel like I am stepping into my power and being most fully myself. I am living up to my own potential.

And so by becoming writers, we become in effect, the Hero of our own story. We are no longer the passive recipient of another’s narrative. We have seized control of our own and writing our destiny into being.

Whether we accomplish it is another matter.

The way is littered with perils and pitfalls – not least that of Ego the Giant, who lumbers onto our path and threatens to overshadow the whole proceedings unless he is handled with care.

Next we will look at the Art of Bragging and how that feckless lunk, Ego, can be put to good use.

DESIRING DRAGONS - COMPASS BOOKS FRONT COVER

Extract from ‘The Writer’s Quest’ Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

Desiring Dragons: creativity, imagination and the writer’s quest, Compass Books, 2014

 

Dragon Lines

6-13 April

Over the Easter break Jenni and I spent a week staying in a yurt on an organic smallholding on the Roseland Peninsula, South Cornwall. Cotna, just down from the sleepy village of Gorran Churchtown, is nestled in an L-shaped valley which gave it its original name ‘Crookcorner’. Dave and Sara, the owners, moved in five years ago and have transformed the 14 acres – which now boast a wind-turbine, polytunnels full of leafy veg, free-range chickens, woodland, solar panels, compost loos and a rather lovely straw-bale house. We were first visitors to stay in their yurt, sitting in its own field – separated by its twin by a stream and a line of recently planted willow. With a log burner and lots of homely touches, it was cosy in the evenings. We ate outside alot and enjoyed sunsets, a vast field of stars, a full moon, dawn choruses, and deep peace. At night, the only disturbance was the conversation of owls and the odd visit from Ziggy – the dribbling long-haired cat.

In the daytime we enjoyed some excellent coastal walks (the coastal path could be reached along a charming winding path – 2 miles to Porthmellon). Amid the pasties, pints and piskies, one of the highlights was a walk around the headlands of St Antony and Dodman Point – the latter possibly deriving its name from an old word for dowser or geomancer (a ‘dodman’ was a country name for a snail – it’s horns like the siting poles of the surveyor – perhaps glimpsed in the staves of the Long Man of Wilmington).  In the late Eighties, local ‘dodmen’ Paul Broadhurst and Hamish Miller discover the Michael and Mary Line – a substantial energy ‘pathway’ running up the southwest peninsula diagonally across England – the two alternating streams weaving in and out like a vast landscape caduceus… or the Rainbow Serpent of Albion. They recorded their findings in their New Age classic, The Sun and the Serpent – which even spawned a TV show, so media-trendy all that stuff was at the time. The fickle gaze of fashion moves on – and last year’s ‘cat’s pyjamas’ are sloughed like snake skin.

Yet the old leys and ways remain – just below the surface – waiting for the curious seeker to stumble upon them, like an ancient sword half-buried in a peat-bog. In Cornwall, this ancient magic feels close to the surface still. I’ve felt it every time I’ve visited – and books like The Little Country, an enchanting novel by the bardically-inclined Canadian author Charles de Lint – conjure it up for me from afar.

I dowse these ‘dragon lines’ in my own way, with the dowsing rod of my pen and my imagination – tuning into the genius loci wherever I visit and letting the awen come through me. In 2004 I was commissioned to write a poem for a dance piece by artist Beth Townley – this became my epic praise-song to Albion, Dragon Dance. I have been performing this in situ at locations around the country – north, south, east and west – as my way of giving thanks back to the land that has born and nurtured me. On the last day of our trip (an auspicious Friday 13th) we stopped off at the Hurlers stone circle on a suitably mist-erious Bodmin Moor – here I recited the Cornwall section of the poem: quite a challenge in lashing, freezing rain! We endured this in good humour, before returning gratefully to the shelter of the car.

Here it is…

Kernow

In the heat of the day,
in the eye of light,
in the land of noon,
where the sea is night.

A land of glittering granite,
sun beat-beating down,
a blacksmith’s hammer on anvil,
melting us with furnace heat.

The silent longevity of fogou and quoit
marking time. Neolithic sundials –
follow their shadow over moor and shore…
Tintagel to Men-an-Tol,
rag-tree temple, Madron’s well.
St Michael’s Mount to St Nectan’s Glen
Zennor to Lamorna, this narrow peninsula –

Twrch Trwyth’s road,
where legend disappeared beneath the waves,
comb and scissors gleaming between bristles,
like church pew mermaid with comb and mirror.
Ageless Mabon snatching success
from the ears of defeat,
before vanishing too … like Arthur …  into the mist.

The dying sun journeying beyond, to the sunken land.
Lyonesse of the endless waves, the Fortunate Isles,
of beacon towers,  inkdust sand, the semaphor of sails.
Deadly Sillina, adorned with the riches of shipwrecks,
the prayers of fishermen, the tears of fishwives.

Passion fire, soul flame yearning,
in the cauldron love is burning.
The spark on the kindling,
the flint and the tinder,
fire friend, stolen power,
seize the spear of the sun,
Long as the day, shadowbright,
give us your light,
give us your light.
give us your light,
so we may do what is right.

Between the earth and the air,
between the fire and the water,
the spirit waits at the centre,
the spirit waits at the centre.

Dance the dragon,
let the dragon dance me.
Biting the tail of infinity.

from Dragon Dance – Kevan Manwaring, Awen 2004

On Monday, 23rd April – which is of course St George’s Day (as well as The Bard’s birth-and-death day) – I’ll be performing in a show with my fellow members of Fire Springs entitled ‘Spirits of Place’ at the enchanting Hawkwood College (which has its own share of genius loci) on the outskirts of Stroud. We’ll be sharing a selection of stories from Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Oxfordshire – taken from our new collections published by The History Press. Mine isn’t due out until the end of the year, but while in Cornwall I was editing the manuscript and rehearsing the tales – so it felt like I had a little bit of the county with me. It has it’s fair share of dragon tales…

Whatever you think of St George (England’s patron saint – all the way from Cappadocia, Turkey…) why not raise a glass to the dragons of Albion on Monday – may they continue to live on, in legend at least.

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/

Gatherings

Bath Writers Midsummer Picnic, Victoria Bath

Bath Writers Midsummer Picnic, Victoria Bath

‘Summertime and the living is easy…’ Fish may not be jumping and the cotton maybe of an indeterminate height,but Summer is a good time to  socialise – especially when the sun shines. Although July has been hit and miss, we had a good blast in June, and the gods were with us for our first Bath Writers’ Midsummer Picnic in Victoria Park, by the bandstand (above). Regulars to the workshop and other members of ‘Bath’s literary underground’, as Anthony Nanson put it, gathered to share poems, songs and stories and slurp, nibble and schmooze. We had a guest visit from Stroud poets Jay Ramsay and Rick Vick, who gave readings from their new books. Misha Carder, representing the Gorsedd Caer Badon (the organising committee behind the Bardic Chair of Bath) officially announced that much-missed Bath poets, Dave Angus and Mary Palmer were made Honorary Bards of Bath. Relatives were present to receive the certificates and moving poetic tributes were read out in their honour by friends.

Other gatherings have included the book launch at the Star Anise Stroud on 2nd July (mentioned in previous post); various events at the Frome Literary Festival (I went there last Monday to see my old mentor, Lindsay Clarke, talk about his latest novel, The Sun at Midnight – criminally unpublished – though his talk was wise and inspiring); and my new initative, Summer Sunday Soirees – essentially bardic, with the emphasis on awen and good times.

Summer Sunday Soiree, my place, 12th July, '09

Summer Sunday Soiree, my place, 12th July, '09

Monday also saw the second meeting of the Stroud Prose Group, hosted by Anthony and Kirsty. I decided to blat up on the old bike to workshop a chapter from the fourth Windsmith novel, The Burning Path. It was pleasant and productive evening, ‘talking ink’ with fellow writers. Since finishing my bulk of teaching, I’ve been able to make real progress with my own writing – one of the joys of summer – make real headway on my fifth and final Windsmith novel, The Wounded Kingdom, now well over half-way! And I’ve been preparing the third, The Well Under the Sea, for an autumn launch. It’s been a very creative time – now that ‘school’s out for summer’, it feels like a clamp has been removed from my head and suddenly my brain works! The ideas are pouring out. I suspect simply having the energy helps alot. Not being exhausted and brain dead does wonders… I’ve even managed some R&R! Last week spent some time down in delightful Branscombe, East Devon, writing and enjoying the stunning scenery, oh – and the odd pint of beer in Beer!

Beautiful Branscombe, East Devon

Beautiful Branscombe, not in West Devon

In the meantime, I have managed to get an agent for a new non-fiction book proposal … that’s all I can say at the moment, except … exciting times!

Mist Over Pendle

Men with Hats!

Men with Hats!

16 November

 

Clitheroe & Pendle

(written in Gloucester Station)

 

Boots still damp from bog-trotting on Pendle Hill today – walked up there with Anthony Nanson, fellow writer and storyteller. He had arranged a joint reading in his old home town of Clitheroe, Lancashire, where he went to Grammar School (‘Like The History Boys, but without the homosexuality!’). We stayed with his parents, Simon (ex-headmaster) and Cynthia (ceramicist and mean cook), who were most hospitable. I even got to sleep in Anthony’s old room. It was really special to let into his past like this.

 

The next morning we dropped some books off at the shop, looking perhaps a little bohemian for a small Northern town with Anthony’s Aslan-ish mane and my devilish hat. Afterwards, as we had a few hours to kill before the gig, Anthony took me up to ‘the Cut’, a notch in Pendle Hill frequented by revellers on Halloween (not a place to hang about, according to Anthony’s schooldays reminiscences, but very much part of the mythic landscape of his childhood). Here, with a dramatic vista either side we rehearsed our stories, slightly apart from one another.

 

Failing to raise Old Nick with our ‘incantations’, (our mythic mumblings would have probably had us burnt two or three centuries earlier) we drove into ‘witch country’ – now clearly sign-posted (as the Pendle Witches have been marketed as local heritage) although we still managed to have a moment of ‘navigational uncertainty’, at a suitably bleak crossroads, where the signs seemed to point all the wrong way (which, as it turned out, they did – having been bent round! It was all getting a bit ‘Blair Witch’…) We found the village, which seemed rather pleasant and harmless, as no doubt the ‘witches’ were – persecuted for political ends or local grudges. With the temperature dropping, we wended our way back to the town. Time to get to work.

 

The ‘reading’  (more a performance, as we didn’t use the texts) took place in Kaydee Bookshop – where Anthony worked for a year. We were co-promoting Anthony’s short story collection Exotic Excursion and my non-fiction tome, Lost Islands – a good combination. We told thirty minutes of material each, alternating ten minute slots. After Anthony’s introduction I started my set with the opening of Oisín and Niamh, including the poem, ‘Delightful is the land beyond all dreams’. In the middle I did The Spirit Bride, an Algonquin tale (which I last performed in Malta last November at Metageum). I ended with two modern stories – a Climate Change one about the ‘discovery’ of a found island, Nymark, in the Arctic, due to melting ice; the other was about how the Onge tribe of Little Andaman survived the Indian Ocean Tsunami thanks to the thirty to fifty thousand years of folklore. Anthony was thoroughly professional and engaging as usual. He hesitated doing his last ‘spoken fiction’ story from Exotic Excursions – because of an incursion by mainly teenage girls halfway through the event, but after apparently listening to Spirit Bride they up sticks and left, so luckily we got to hear Anthony’s movingly subtle rendition of his lakeside epiphany – an experience perhaps you appreciate far more, the older you get. It would be nice to have someone to share such a moment with. Indirectly, I supposed we had…a small but committed audience listened attentively (mostly Anthony’s family and friends, including an old Primary school teacher). We sold three books each, and they took six more of Anthony’s title on sale or return. The long trip certainly wasn’t reciprocated financially – most of it went on petrol and trains – but in other ways it felt worth the effort. It was great to have a break away from Bath after a heavy fortnight of teaching and marking. I hadn’t really been away from Bath properly since late September (OOTO/Long Man). Also, I have had a hard time lately – separating from my partner and, earlier in the week, having a motorcycle crash. I survived (a bruised knee and bank balance) but my beloved Zuki is in the garage awaiting repairs – the last thing I needed in these difficult times. 

          I was appreciative that Anthony was allowing me into his past – as we walked streets ghosted with memory. Later that evening, after the gig, we went into town with Andrew, an old Grammar School friend of his. We holed up in the Castle, by a merry fire. The old friends got caught up in a discussion about economics, while I yearned for some more feminine company. Anthony said I go to a pub to drink, but actually I want to connect with my emotions – not my intellect – after a tiring week’s teaching. I find a political debate not that relaxing, whileas some love to argue the toss (they had both been members of the school’s debating society and you could tell). I wished I’d gone into the other room to watch the musician, but by the time I decided to do this, he had finished. When we got back, I just hit the sack. It had been a tiring day.

 

          Sunday, the weather miraculously cleared up after an overcast start. Togged up, we set off with some basic supplies – from Anthony’s ‘iron rations’. We parked in the pretty village of Barley and followed the line of reservoirs up – the effort warming us up, as it was chilly. We stopped to savour the black lines of bare trees against the silver water, the steep flanks of green hills beyond, the reddish bracken in the foreground. It was cold, clear – with a Celtic clarity about it, like one of those Medieval vignettes, perhaps the Gawain poem – one could have easily imagined the Green Knight dwelling up one of the cloughs, the sound of him sharpening his axe ringing in the brassy air. We carried on up passed the Boar of Wembory Clough, a jagged gulley down which iron knots of water gurgled. We were meant to follow the V of the main beck (?) all the way up but the path seemed to vanish into muddy, rocky slopes – so we struck out across country, hoping to intersect the lost track, but found ourselves bogtrotting over spongy ground riddled with treacherous ‘holes’ of brackish water. It was tiring slog, but at least it was sunny. It would have been grim going in wind and raining. This wasn’t a place to linger in such conditions. It had a wildness about it, an abode of trolls. After a determined yomp we hit the stone slab pathways – what bliss – which led to the top, the ‘Big End’. After ritualistically touching the trig point we went to the brow of the steep side to enjoy the spectacular view over the Ribble Valley. It had been certainly worth the effort. We enjoyed the prospect despite the noisy group of ramblers nearby, stopping for their summit snack like us, before the temperature made them move on. It was a clear day, and the Big End afforded fine views. We scoffed some crisps and chocolate and got moving again, making a small diversion at my request to Robin Hood’s Well, from which we both sipped. It was a romantic place, one could imagine the wolfshead slaking his thirst here as he looked back to his possibly native Yorkshire. I asked for cunning and agility, for it was also known as Fox’s well, but this was probably after George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, who had a vision on Pendle which inspired him to found his new religion. It was easy to see why – this place lent itself easily to noble thoughts, to vision. We now stood on Mount Epiphany, in the footsteps of prophets, and drank from those same waters…Having supped from the source, we gladly descended, body temperature plummeting. Down the steep rock steps passed the hordes of visitors flocking up, some ill-attired for the heights or a sudden turn in the weather. It was good to descend to milder climes now, although the land retained its wonderful rugged quality. We followed a merry beck lined with tangled hawthorns back down to the carpark, and, after purchasing some placatory jam (a token gesture to my kindly hospitable hosts) we wended our way home to Anthony’s parents for a lovely lunch, before hitting the road in earnest – South, a long but agreeable ride down the Welsh Marches. Anthony dropped me off at Gloucester station, where a dull long train ride home awaited (3 hours!). I wearily made it back to the Cauldron, ready to collapse – but first I finished off the stew I’d made earlier in the week, and hit the sack with toddy and bottle. A tiring jaunt, but I was certainly better for it than if I’d stewed at home all weekend. Nature is most certainly the best medicine. I agree with GM Trevelyan, who said: ‘I have two doctors, my left leg and my right.’ I am grateful to have both.